A Review of Arminian Theology by Roger E. Olson

I am consistently appreciative and frustrated by Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology, it solidly fulfills its thesis and has provided a great resource for understanding historical and contemporary Arminianism, but at the same time it is frustratingly shallow in its consistent jabs at Calvinism and it misses the implications of what it is presenting (mainly in the area free will and the critical doctrine of Prevenient Grace).

In his book Arminian Theology Olson is  not attempting to lay out a systematic defense or exegetical case for Arminianism, but is simply attempting to “correctly delineate true Arminian theology and to begin to undo the damage that has been done to this theological heritage by both its critics and friends” (43). It is an expedition in historical theology, attempting to explicate the contemporary evangelical doctrine, as held by Olson, as well as survey the various understandings of Arminianism that have been held by its major thinkers throughout the last couple of centuries; in doing this, hopefully dispelling false notions of what Arminian doctrine is and is not. As to this thesis Olson succeeds quite handily and in doing this provides an excellent resource for Armininians hoping to know what they believe better, Calvinists who wish—as I do—to better understand the perspective of their Evangelical brothers and sisters with whom they disagree, and for those who are undecided and hoping to better understand Arminian theology (though in reading this work if you are of this last group you will not acquire any form of a good understanding of Calvinism, rather you will get quite deficient one).

 

The book is structured around 10 myths which Olson is attempting to dispel and in their place establish a solid understanding of Arminian doctrine. Because of this structure the book takes a rather defensive tone—though he makes it clear he is not desiring this tone (10)—seeming to present Arminianism as a much maligned and deprived protestant brother of Calvinism which is constantly being picked on, misrepresented (though I admit this challenge is sometimes [though not always] sadly true), and abused. The myths he deals with are varied, ranging from the ideas that Arminianism and Calvinism are opposites or that a “Calminian” hybrid is possible, to theological issues such as the myth that all Arminians reject Penal Substitutionary atonement in favor of Hugo Grotius’ Governmental theory.

Over its 246 pages Arminian Theology manages to do some good. I have already mentioned that it makes a great resource for coming to understand Arminianism. Olson also makes it clear that a Calvinism-Arminianism hybrid is impossible. This is a great point. Despite the truth that these two systems of theology share much in common, there is at their core irreconcilable differences; namely Unconditional Election and Conditional Election, Limited Atonement (Particular Redemption) and Unlimited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace and Prevenient/Resistible Grace. Sometimes, as a Calvinist, I feel like I am the only one who thinks that these systems are, at least at their core, mutually exclusive; it is nice to have this affirmed by an Arminian. More on the good side, Olson clearly emphasizes the truth that both Arminianism and Calvinism are evangelical positions. I whole heartedly agree, at least with one clarification. While both are evangelical as they stand, I believe that Arminianism is the much weaker position, a position which is supported by rather flimsy doctrinal and scriptural foundations—foundations without which it would genuinely descend into a heterodox (if not a heretical) position, but more on that later. Lastly, I can’t agree more with the rules of engagement he lays out in his conclusion: “Adherents of both sides within evangelicalism should agree on some basic rules of discourse. First, before speaking or writing about another theology, we must be sure we have read it and are able to describe it as its own representatives describe it. In short, before saying “I disagree” we must be able to say “I understand”” (243). I think this is a valid point that both Calvinists and Arminians should genuinely take to heart; Calvinist’s learn what your brothers think so as to be better able to dialogue with and, if in a position to do so, correct them (IN LOVE!! (John 13:34)) where they are misguided!

 

 

While I did find good in this book and recommend it as a useful resource, I found it to be decidedly flimsy in places. Though I could write a lengthy book on the obvious theological disagreements I have with Olson, there were a few issues that specifically stood out to me beyond typical Calvinist-Arminian theological differences; these can be grouped under three heads. The first of these are misrepresentations of the Calvinist position (minor, but quite manipulative to those who are not familiar with the doctrine as defended by its most cohesive and Scriptural defendants today); the second is the issue of free will, God’s nature, and the heart of Arminian theology; and lastly there is the issue of prevenient grace which is found throughout the book as the dividing line between Arminian theology and Semi-Pelagianism or other heterodox/heretical positions (36).

 

First off, I took slight issue with the way that Olson characterized the Calvinistic understanding of Unconditional Election (when dealing with reprobation), Irresistible Grace, and divine providence—though I do admit that there are Calvinists that characterize their belief in the way he describes them, they are not the best, nor most biblical, defendants of contemporary Calvinism. First up here is Unconditional Election—now these are a mixture of a summary of Wesley’s view and Olson’s—Olson writes that “Wesley argued that Calvinist belief in “single predestination” logically entails double predestination, including unconditional reprobation and damnation of certain persons to hell without hope or regard to their genuinely free decisions or actions” (emphasis added, 109) and “In what way could God be loving towards those he has unconditionally decreed to consign to the flames of hell for eternity?… Might not God be a God of love even if he dictates and determines people’s eternal destinies, including some to endless torment” (113-114)? Of the former quote my issue is with Olson’s libertarian slant to the quote of Wesley; that God damns the reprobate without “regard to their genuinely free decisions or actions”. That statement may be true for some extreme forms of Supralapsarianism, but other than that—if it even exists—it is only true if one marries an Arminian understanding of Libertarian Free Will with a Calvinist doctrine; something that no Calvinist will do! Olson here ignores his own rule to represent a view as their best defendants would! For a Calvinist, men and women make genuinely free (though some may debate the use of free here for its Libertarian connotations) and meaningful choices for which they are held responsible and this is 100% compatible with God’s sovereign determination[1] of the entire course of the past, present, and future in His creation.  Unconditional election is God (from a Infralapsarian perspective) looking at the mass of fallen men and women who are absolutely bound to sin and are condemned by their own depraved nature (something that Arminianism affirms) and choosing in accord with His own nature, which is to be absolutely free and unobligated by anything outside of Himself in dispensing His mercy (Romans 9, specifically Paul’s quote of Ex.), to display mercy on some of His fallen creation showing specific and special love to those undeserving people to whom He desires—solely out of His sovereign and gracious mercy—to show mercy and passing over the rest of fallen man leaving them condemned in their own sin and guilt and inherited guilt of Adam to face the eternal consequences of their sin against God’s holy and righteous nature. They second quote is in response to an evangelical Calvinist writing on the difference between God’s love for His elect and all mankind (though unmentioned, it is probably D.A. Carson and his outstanding book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, highly recommend reading it). Olson here writes of God “dictating and determining people’s eternal destinies”. Though in one sense this is true, with the use of the word “dictating,” a word no Calvinist I know of would use, alongside of “determining” and no complete explication of the Calvinist doctrine this will leave an inexperienced reader with the undeniable impression that God forces those whom He has elected and reprobated into their respective destinies; this is a understanding more akin to Fatalism than Calvinistic soft determinism—a position where God’s determination of all things is compatible with meaningful human choice and responsibility! God, through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, raises those dead in their sin to life and gives them the desire to choose Him so that they will willingly (not from a Libertarian perspective, but definitely from a Compatibilist perspective) respond to His effectual call and be saved, He leaves those whom He has not elected in their depraved condition so that they willfully sin and will never respond to the Gospel solely for the reason that they despise it from the very core of their being.

Next up is Irresistible Grace. Here I merely take issue with Olson insistence that Calvinist’s “typically describe this process as “bending the will”” (65). Olson refers to Irresistible Grace as God “bending the will” in a few places (63, 38), and I find it disingenuous to suggest that this is “typical” language of a Calvinist. In reading the only thing like this I have encountered is Calvin saying that God bends the will of the reprobate, which is a totally different issue in a totally different context, and a quick internet search only revealed one other, John Gill, using this language (though I am unsure of his context). My issue is that for those who, again, are not familiar with Calvinist literature this plays right into the implications of the word “Irresistible” that most Calvinist’s try to avoid by using the term “the Effectual Call.” What Calvinists want to avoid is the idea that God coerces or forces anybody (though to be fair, Olson, right after quoting Palmers good description of Irresistible grace on page 65, does mention in passing that Calvinists don’t believe God coerces anyone; but right after using the word “bending” I felt as if a reader will totally miss that point) to accept or reject the Gospel message; the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration renders one’s will positively inclined to righteousness and God so that a person once dead in sin will, upon hearing the gospel message, see clearly the beautiful offer it is and joyfully accept without questions God’s free offer of salvation.

Lastly, there is Olson’s explanation of Calvinistic providence. After contrasting various Arminian and Calvinist views, in describing the view of God’s sovereignty for some Arminians Olson writes; “There is neither a secret impulse of God toward evil nor a hidden God who manipulates people to sin” (126). While Olson does not come out and say “unlike the Calvinist’s”; that is implication of what he is saying, and it is quite disingenuous. God in the Calvinist understanding has determined all events and works all things according to His sovereign purposes (which is, of course, based on Scriptural testimony; e.g.  Eph. 1), but is never the author of Evil nor its primary cause and while He uses evil for His righteous purposes,[2] He does not coerce or force anybody to sin (which means, in the Calvinist understanding of Compatibilist free will, that God is not its author or cause but while determining it the men and women who are sinning in accord with their totally depraved nature are the cause and sole responsible parties for the action). Next he writes; “The inner logic of Calvinism—exhaustive divine determinism—drives toward saying that because nothing happens that god has not foreordained and rendered certain, God is the ultimate cause of every wicked thought and desire because he seeks glory for himself even through damning the wicked” (136). This is spoken like a true Libertarian, and that is exactly why it is not “The inner logic of Calvinism”! For a Calvinist Libertarian Free Will does not exist, and according to the Compatibilist understanding of free will God rendering certain every event by no means makes Him the cause of everything! And while it is true that God gets glory for Himself in the damnation of the wicked, that is a result of the fact that God created all things for the purpose of glorifying His Holy name, for if He did anything other than that He would be committing Idolatry for He would be pursuing an end that was something other than the Highest and most worthy end in the entire universe; His Name, i.e. His character. In Romans 9 Paul writes that God’s purpose in election and reprobation was to be who He is, to display the fullness of His nature. As Piper has quite profoundly argued, in glorifying Himself God is in fact both fulfilling His nature and blessing His creation (read his book Desiring God).

 

Secondly, I think that Olson misses something when he attempts to disprove the myth that free will is not the heart of Arminianism (97-114). He spends the whole time arguing this point while proving repeatedly that while Free Will as an abstract concept may not be the heart of Arminianism, the idea that Libertarianism is the reality of the world sure is. Throughout the entire chapter all the quotes Olson musters in support of the fact that Free Will is not the heart of Arminianism and all that he writes continually betrays the fact that he, and the Arminian theologians he is quoting, start with the belief that for human beings to be held morally responsible for their choices they must be able to choose between alternative choices (Incompatiblism, freedom of alternate choice, Libertarian free will); they presuppose that for someone to be responsible their choice cannot be determined! The only way one can prove free will (at least of the Libertarian kind) from the Bible is to presuppose it; all the evidences for it presuppose its existence! For example; often someone will turn to the free offer of the Gospel and say that since all are offered it therefore all must be free to respond, therefore Libertarianism. But the problem is that both Compatibilists and Libertarians affirm that all men are responsible and free in one sense or another to respond on reject the offer of the Gospel. That doesn’t mean that Scripture doesn’t teach either and it is totally a philosophical debate; this is because, while Scripture cannot affirm Libertarianism without a presupposition in its favor, if Scripture shows that in fact humans are responsible (which it all side agree it assumes throughout) and it also teaches that God determines even some actions which men and women are held responsible, or determines the fates of some men and women rendering the outcome certain, then libertarianism cannot be a biblical position and Compatibilism has to be true (though not necessarily the form suggested by Jonathan Edwards which is often defended by Calvinists).  Now, let me explain why I conclude that they are presupposing Libertarianism. Olson argues that in fact human free will is not the core of Arminian theology, but the character of God as loving and good (amen!) is the core of their theology (98 and throughout that chapter). He writes that “Arminians believe in free will because they see it everywhere assumed in the Bible, and because it is necessary to protect God’s reputation” (98). Now, may I point out the irony that Arminians affirm Total Depravity. Total Depravity is a doctrine which says that humans are in bondage to and dead to sin without a work by the Spirit, so this is only possibly true if we introduce the doctrine of Prevenient Grace, which—as I will attempt to succinctly show shortly—has no evidence except arguing from libertarian presupposition (i.e. for humans to be held responsible they must have libertarian free will, Scripture teaches depravity, therefore the Spirit must change all mankind’s heart so that they are free and able to be held accountable; but this is circular for if Scripture teaches libertarianism than it first much teach Prevenient Grace which is what this argument which Arminians actually use is trying to prove). Now the only way free will can be assumed in the Bible is if one brings a presupposed libertarian understanding to all the instances where humans are held responsible for their choices. The last point in this quote is that it is necessary to protect God’s reputation. Now, a theodicy dealing with the very difficult problem of evil is outside of the scope of this review; but a point can be made. There are good solid defenses of how evil came to be from a Calvinistic perspective, but free will doesn’t work for either side. Augustine, the first “Calvinist” after Jesus and the Apostles, is actually the pioneer of the “free will” defense in response to the problem of evil (obviously working with a Compatibilist understanding of free will). The problem with leaving this issue in the hands of free will is that the question must be asked; where did the initial inclination in the will of Adam and Eve to sin come from? If they had a “neutral” will (which is actually an impossibility), how was their will inclined in the direction of the fall? The usual answer would be that Satan persuaded them, but then that defaults back to the question; why was Satan inclined so as to fall initially if he was in a state of neutrality? Basically, outside of another defense such as can be found in Calvinistic literature, a free will defense results in somehow man either being created with an inclination towards the eventual choice to fall (whether that inclination be as innocent as a taste for whatever fruit was forbidden) or that they were in circumstances which facilitated a positive inclination towards sin in their wills, a situation God could have created otherwise (now, Compatibilism is actually in a better place here because if Adam and Eve choose in accord with their desires then in fact it was a free choice for which they could be held accountable, Libertarianism does not have that choice). This is not meant to be answer to the problem of evil; I just want to mention that Libertarianism actually leaves Arminians with fewer options for answering the problem of evil then their Calvinistic brothers. Repeatedly throughout the book Olson betrays the fact that while Free Will isn’t necessarily the guiding principle of Arminianism, a prior adherence to Libertarian free will sure is (e.g. 123, 65-66, 98, 99, 103-104, 105, 108, 110,  122-123, 127). I could stay up all night defending my assertion here from all these examples, but I think one more should suffice. It is quite ironic that in trying to show that Arminius doesn’t use free will as the critical principle of his view, Olson unintentionally shows that Libertarianism was. In quoting Arminius addressing the theologies of William Perkins and Franciscus Gomarus he specifically boasts that Arminius “appealed not to free will as his critical principle but to divine goodness” (103-104). This is the quote from Arminius: “But you say that “the will of man intervened in this desertion [from God],” because “man was not deserted, unless willing to be deserted.” I reply, if it is so, then truly man deserved to be forsaken. But I ask whether man could have willed not to be forsaken. But if you say he could, then he did not sin necessarily, but freely. But if you say he could not, then the blame redounds to God” (104). Here Arminius unequivocally appeals to a Libertarian understanding of free will to counter the theology of his opponent, and it is this that Olson boasts as not appealing to free will as the critical principle of Arminianism! Arminius says that what his opponent says is all well and good, if the man “could have willed not to be forsaken” (i.e. had the ability to choose a contrary choice and not his greatest desire). He then says if the answer is positive, then he sinned freely and not necessarily. This is an affirmation of libertarianism and rejection of Compatibilism, for in the opponent’s compatibilist understanding the man would have necessarily sinned in accord with his greatest desire, and this would actually be a free choice. Arminius says that if his opponent suggests that the man sinned out of necessity (i.e., no matter how much he desired to, if his sin was determined and unable to be otherwise) then God is to blame, which is only a valid conclusion if you assume libertarianism as true to reality! So in trying to show how Arminius was not governed by free will, Olson actually proves the opposite; if this passage was meant to show that “he appealed not to free will as his critical principle” then it in fact shows that he appealed to libertarianism and its definition of human responsibility necessitating free will as his critical principle! So Olson in this chapter does in fact succeed in showing that free will is not the center of Arminian theology, he shows that the Libertarian definition of free will and human responsibility is! This is quite sad, for—even excluding the absence of any evidence for Prevenient Grace—there are Scriptures that show without much debate at least some determinism compatible with human responsibility. For example, one of many is the crucifixion of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. In Acts 2:23 Peter preaches that “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Even the events happened according to God’s determination, it they are said to have crucified Him; it was their action. In 3:15 Peter again charges his audience with this act of murder, saying that they killed him. Right after preaching of the death of Christ at their hands and His resurrection, Peter calls for their repentance that they may receive forgiveness and have their sins blotted out (3:19). All this, crimes the people where held accountable for, was prophesied by God’s prophets (v. 18) and came to pass according to God’s definite plan (2:23), His foreknowledge (2:23), and His predestining act (Acts 4:27-28).[3] It is clear from Acts 2-4 that God willed for His perfect Son, fully God and fully man, to be crucified! Of this Jonathan Edwards wrote; “The crucifying of Christ was a great sin; and as man committed it, it was exceedingly hateful and highly provoking to God. Yet upon many great considerations it was the will of God that it should be done.”[4][5] This is just one of many examples, any one of which overthrows libertarianism. There is also the issue of perseverance. Romans 8:28-39 links an inevitable conclusion between predestination, calling, justifying, and glorifying. There is no way to avoid the fact that—even if you someone manage to conclude foreknowledge is of peoples free choice of salvation, something which is nowhere said in the context—every person said to be foreknown hears a call, and every one of these responds being justified, and each and every one of these are glorified. In 1 Peter 1, v. 1-7, we read that the reason they do is because God in His omnipotent power preserves them through their faith. In John 10 this is confirmed when Jesus speaks of the security of His sheep in His hand, where no one is able to tear them from His and His father’s hand! In John 6:35-48 we read that all who receive the drawing of God, all who come to Jesus Christ in faith, all who are members of the new covenant (cf. the quotation in v. 45) will endure to receive eternal life! In v. 37 there is in fact a powerful grammatical structure is used to emphasize God’s hand in ensuring it, Jesus says “and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” By which He means that He will certainly keep them in! The fact that the perseverance of believers is guaranteed by God’s omnipotent power leads naturally to the conclusion that their perseverance is rendered certain, and not even rendered certain by foreknowledge but rendered certain by the active work of God keeping them (also see Hebrews 3:14, and Hebrews 6)! This is an absurdity for a Libertarian because this means that God is forcing all who have professed faith to stay in the faith no matter how much they want to leave, it is denial of free will! But for a compatibilist it doesn’t cause this issue; though men and women may backslide for a time, those who are truly saved will—by the grace of God and in accord with their greatest desires, as a result of the work wrought by the Holy Spirit upon their hearts, first in regeneration and then in sanctification—never depart finally and completely from the Christian faith and will freely endure to be glorified! Well, I think that is enough for that tangent; namely what I meant to address here is that I found Olson to have a rather large blind spot in denying free will as the critical principle in Arminian theology while at the same time showing that in fact a definition of free will is the critical principle.

I will make my last negative observation about the book rather short. Earlier in this review I mentioned that on page 36 Olson writes that the doctrine of Prevenient Grace is what makes “evangelical synergism” evangelical! Throughout the book he trumps this doctrine as the oft neglected answer to many of the myths about Arminianism; the reason Arminians can affirm justification by faith and can hold to Total depravity, can claim that in their theology all the glory goes to God, the reason they are not Semi-Pelagians, is because of Prevenient Grace (e.g. 36, 159, and the entirety of Myth 4, 6, 7, and 9). I have been writing a book on Prevenient Grace and the evidence for it, and sadly the evidence is none existent (aside from out of context quotations of Romans 5 [Purkiser] and John 1:9 [Wesley]). All Olson gives in favor of it (though, to be fair, a defense of the doctrines he explains is outside of the scope of his book; sadly he actually gives more evidence than systematic theologies I consulted) is the quote I gave above where he says that free will is assumed throughout Scripture and that Prevenient Grace is how Arminians interpret the “drawings” of John 6 (159). The first argument is quite circular and not strong in face of all the affirmations of total depravity given in Scripture; for Prevenient Grace to be true there needs to be an explicit statement of it. John 6 is as close as they get for this. I will trust the reader of this review to take the time to slowly read John 6 and notice a few things. He is referring specifically to verse 44, but the specific context for this verse is 22-71, focusing on the discourse of 26-58, and more specifically the grumbling of the Jews in v. 41 going to v. 51. Reading this chapter notice how the drawings are not described as resistible, but in 44 Jesus says that He will raise those drawn on the last day, raising here implies raising to eternal life! So all those drawn respond and are saved. This coincides with v. 45 where Jesus quotes a New Covenant promise of Isaiah to the effect of showing that these drawings are the regenerating work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers as prophesied by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (the teaching, implanting of God’s law in the people’s minds and hearts, and the giving of a heart of flesh in the place of a heart of stone). V. 35-40 also provides vital context, here Jesus teaches the same thing about the endurance unto eternal life of all those who come to Him (i.e. Believe). I find it incredibly disingenuous for writers like Olson to toss John 6:44 in brackets as evidence for the resistible and universal Arminian Prevenient Grace when it is in fact one of the most powerful texts in the entire New Testament in favor of Irresistible Grace, Total Depravity, Unconditional election, and Perseverance of the Saints.

 

This book gets a rating of 3/5.

It is an incredibly useful resource for laymen and scholars to have, but at the same time it is in support of a profoundly weak doctrine, though one that is still Evangelical, and is disingenuous at points. Even though I disagree strongly with Olson, I recommend this book to Calvinists seeking a better understanding of the doctrines their evangelical brothers adhere to, and to Arminians who desire to understand what they believe better (though please read a good Calvinist book for a good understanding of Calvinism; books like Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Carson’s The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, Piper’s Desiring God, Sproul’s What is Reformed Theology and Chosen by God, Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God; pretty much anything by those authors!!).


[1] Determination is again a controversial term because of the negative connotations of active primary causation which it carries, sometimes in Calvinist usage it does mean this, but often God’s determination is the rendering certain of the choices human beings will make in accord with their greatest desire; God is the cause of all things in the sense that He renders all things certain and created all things, He is also active as a primary cause in our world, but often causation in relation to His world is often secondary—God determines all of our free (in a compatibilist sense) choices and renders certain our sinful choices in His plan to work all things for His glory, but this determination does not mean that He forces us to sin or even that He plants the desire for that specific sin into our minds, it means that He renders certain in line with His immutable will the choices we will make out of our wills in accord with our greatest desires. To say God has determined all things does not undermine the truth that Humans make genuine and meaningful choices for which they will be held accountable, it means that all things transpire according to God’s definite and immutable plan for His creation; the context of statements using the term “determined” needs to judge whether the other is referring to God as a primary cause of the event or act in question.

[2] Job and Joseph, God’s determination of the most heinous crime ever committed; the murder of the only sinless man who ever lived, God’s holy and sinless Son who came down and humbled Himself taking on the very role of servant and dying so that He may sanctify a bride unto Himself and ransom a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation under the sun.

[3] The fact that the death of Jesus was a sinful act on the part of those doing for which they would be held responsible is also betrayed in the fact that from the Cross Jesus cries out to God for those killing Him in ignorance to be forgiven; they would only need to be forgiven if killing Him was crime for which they could be held responsible (Luke 23:34).

[4] Quoted in John Piper, “Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained That Evil Be?,” Desiring God, n.d., http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/is-god-less-glorious-because-he-ordained-that-evil-be?lang=en (accessed July 1, 2013).

[5] The segment from “In Acts…” to this quote is taken from a paper (maybe a book) I am currently working on, it will not be done until at the earliest this Christmas (currently at 118 pages, 30 or 40 more to go).

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