By Roger E. Olson
Published byInterVarsity Press, 2006
Roger E. Olson grew up in a Pentecostal household and has always been an Arminian. Surrounded by Pentecostals, most of the people he knew were also Arminians and so he never felt the need to question or defend the teaching until he got out into the broader Evangelical world. There he ran into Calvinism. I wrote earlier about the Evangelical tendency to avoid doctrinal debate through slander and disinformation. Olson, who is seeking a rapprochement with Calvinists, would never be so blunt, and puts down these ‘myths’ to misunderstandings and ignorance. Perhaps that’s fair. Certainly as these myths circulate, they get repeated by people who have no reason not to take them at face value, but if you’re going to expound on a subject, then you owe to yourself and those you are teaching to learn the truth.
Here Olson’s book provides a solid foundation. He addresses ten common misconceptions about Arminianism, contrasting it with Calvinism. For example, ‘Myth Four: The Heart of Arminianism Is Belief in Free Will.’ When I first studied this subject, about ten years ago, it was because of an interest in free will, but that’s not what Arminius was concerned about. Calvinism teaches a God so completely in control of the world that everything that happens is an expression of His will. His grace is so effectual, that all who God wills to be saved must be saved. Arminius realized that if this were the case, then God is the author of sin and that the Fall of Man could only have happened because it was God’s will that we sin. If God determines who will be saved, He, at the same time, determines who will be damned. This, argued Arminius, was wrong and contrary to the God revealed in scripture. It is not God’s will that any perish. If some do perish, and we know that some do, then there must be some element of free will that allows us to accept or reject His will for us. Arminius was not concerned with free will, per se; he only sought to protect the character of God from what is implicitly taught by Calvinism: that God created sin and condemned people to Hell long before they were even born.
Dr. Olson’s book is both a solid introduction to Arminianism and a strong defence against much of the disinformation that has been circulated about it, but I did have a couple of problems with it. The first concerns structure. Olson wrote each chapter so that it could be read without consulting the other chapters. I understand why. I spent many years in university and it’s an environment that teaches lazy reading. You’re after information and want it as quickly and as easily as possible. But if you are reading the book from cover to cover, it is incredibly repetitive. Rather than assume you’ve read the previous chapter, he repeats points again and again. Olson warns readers of this, but it was still very trying. Another structural problem is that the headers on each page list the myth being addressed in the chapter, but not that it is a myth. Consequently, the same lazy readers the repetition is meant to serve will open the book to, for example, page 160 and see “Arminianism Is Not a Theology of Grace,” instead of “Myth 7: Arminianism Is Not a Theology of Grace.” If you are going to spoon feed information, why stop at half measures?
The second problem is more serious, but also a logical result of Olson’s intentions. Because his goal is the acceptance of Arminius’ teachings within Reform--read: High Calvinist--circles, he makes little reference to the 1500 years of Church teachings that preceded the Reformation. In reality, Arminius’ doctrines were far more in keeping with traditional Christian teachings than Calvin’s. Yes, there were determinist theological teachings before the Reformation, but where were they adopted as formal doctrinal positions? No where. But by treating Calvinism as a norm to be measured against, he creates an inverted little world in which Arminius is always on the defensive. All of the myths addressed in this book assume Calvinism is the norm. All of the Reformation first generation of leaders, Calvin included, were trained as Catholic theologians first and later rejected aspects of Catholicism they believed to be unscriptural and unchristian, but they didn’t start again from scratch. This sort of contextualization could only serve to strengthen the legitimacy of Arminianism as a traditional Christian teaching, but Olson doesn’t give it because he is seeking acceptance form people who would only hold it against him (adding an eleventh myth, that Arminianism is too Catholic or Orthodox).
These criticisms aside, Arminian Theology makes for a great introduction to the subject and I would recommend to anyone interested in the debate.