This is a review of the book "Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities" by Roger E. Olson. The book was graciously provided to me by the publishers and I am receiving no remuneration for this review.
I'll begin with a summary statement and say that this is an excellent book, one with which I have no complaints and one that I can recommend highly to you. Some of you are shocked at this point, wondering why I, as a Calvinist can give such a ringing endorsement to a book in defense of Arminianism.
The reason is simply - Olson set out to clear up myths about Arminianism and thereby give an introduction and defense of Arminian theology and he accomplished his goal.
This book is of great value to Calvinists and Arminians. I suppose I ought to speak cautiously about how the book is valuable for Arminians, since I'm not one, but it seems to me that he does an admirable job of distinguishing the core beliefs of historical Arminian theology from some of its aberrations. In each section of the book he deals with a particular myth/reality and shows how Arminian theologians throughout history have viewed the matter at hand. He is particularly deferential to Arminius himself, but he is not afraid to point out where his followers have departed from orthodoxy. He frequently mentions the leading Arminian theologians throughout history - Simon Episcopus, John Wesley, John Miley and H. Orton Wiley and affirms, criticizes and points out weaknesses in each where he believes it warrants. He is particularly careful to distinguish the views of historic Arminianism from one of its leading propenents - Phillip Limborch. While claiming to be an Arminian, Limborch went off the rails in many ways, and Olson thinks that he and his influence have contributed to the notion that Arminians are heterodox. Charles Finney also receives his fair share of critisism in this. So, as I say, I can't help but feel that this would be helpful to Arminians who want to better understand their own tradition.
The book will also be helpful to Calvinists because it gives us the chance to let an Arminian speak for himself and in this case I believe he does it in an articulate and irenic way. I think I have seen a few criticisms on the internet charging Olson with being too harsh on or misrepresenting Calvinists - I don't exactly see it that way. For one thing anyone is going to cheer for the home team and with Olson being an Arminian I could forgive him if he bristled and made an intemperate response to some Calvinists, although as I said, I don't remember anything particularly intemperate in the book. I also fully expect him to see Calvinism through Arminian eyes and to not read Calvinism as sympathetically as a Calvinist would. I think it's healthy for a Calvinist to see these kinds of reactions.
But mostly, I think the greatest benefit for Calvinists is that in this book you get the chance to hear an articulate Arminian speak for himself. For most Calvinists, we get our knowledge of Arminianism from our fellow Calvinists and we tend to spin things in the worst possible way when it comes to Arminianism.
Getting back to the idea that Olson accomplishes his purpose here, he sets out to prove that Arminianism falls within the bounds of evangelicalism and protestantism. In that regard I think he proves his case. And he even quotes Calvinist professors Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams from Covenant Seminary in that regard. In their book "Why I am Not an Arminian" they say (as quoted by Olson):
Yet we do not think of Arminianism as a heresy or Arminianism Christians as unregenerate . . . the Calvinist and Arminian are brothers in Christ. Both belong to the household of faith.
If you have read a good deal of the Calvinist literature on Arminianism I hope you get the gravity of the statement "we do not think of Arminianism as a heresy." This is the central talking point of most Calvinist polemics against Arminianism and is quite a concession for two profs at one of America's leading seminaries to make. Yet I think it is good and essential. It dovetails with a concern I have written about here where I quote Jim Nicholson at the Boars Head Tavern as follows:
It never occurs to anyone anymore that those on "the other side" of the aisle, or of the question of the moment, are merely wrong, they must be either evil, or stupid, or both.
This is the kind of rhetoric that has characterized the Calvinist/Arminian debate through the centuries and it is refreshing to see folks like Peterson, Williams and Olson trying to lower the rhetorical temperature of the debate. I also think of Tim Keller's comment in his book The Reason for God about the distinction between denunciation and disagreement. Keller suggested that debate could be dramatically improved if it could rise to the level of disagreement, as opposed to denunciation, and I think that applies in this debate.
In mentioning Olson's concern to show that Arminianism is orthodox, evangelical and protestant it is important to note what he does and doesn't say about Arminianism vis-a-vis Calvinism. He says that both can equally claim the name evangelical, orthodox and protestant, but the two can't ultimately be reconciled or hybridized.
In other words, there are those who try to develop some kind of Calminianism, but Olson won't go for that - he says it just can't work. The differences are too much and any attempt to hybridize inevitably ends up leaning very hard to one side or the other.
I don't know if Olson would agree with this analogy but I think he shows the relationship of Calvinism and Arminianism to be like that of dog to cat. Dogs and cats are equally members of the animal kingdom, but they are different breeds and can't be cross-bred. In other words, Calvinism and Arminianism can both claim to be evangelical, orthodox and protestant, but they can't mix. The relationship is dog to cat, not dog to rutabega.
While Olson makes an excellent and winsome case for Arminianism I don't think there is enough here to warrant a Calvinist switching to Arminianism. I'll give a couple of examples of the difficulties that Calvinists and Arminians face.
I like the way Olson describes the difference between Calvinists and Arminians - it is not a difference between those who believe in predestination vs. free will, it involves a different view of God. For the Arminian love is the dominant attribute of God and for the Calvinist sovereignty is. Both believe in love and sovereignty, but the two sides give a higher priority to one or the other. The Arminian cannot accept the Calvinist conception of election and predestination because to them it violates their idea of what a loving God would look like. That's a dilemma we Calvinists ought to respect - it's not just a bunch of namby-pamby humanists trying to accomodate God to their humanism, they sincerely believe this view of the priority of God's love arises from the Scriptures.
At the same time, I think the sovereign motifs for God dominate in Scripture. I believe strongly in the love of God, but I place a higher view on sovereignty. One way to describe the debate in recent years has been to ask if redemption takes on the character of a family room or a court room. Because of exegetical and historical studies I have become convinced that when the Scripture refers to God as Father, it often is referring to Him in a way that carries the sense of "father of the nation" more so than "father of the family." Thus, with the priority of sovereignty, I and most Calvinists are going to tend to interpret love in light of sovereignty more so than the Arminian.
I'll refer to one passage out of the book that illustrates some of the issues here. This snippet is part of a larger section arguing for the Arminian view of predestination based on foreknowledge and it deals with the thorny issue of the relationship of God's sovereignty to sin. The Arminian wants to protect God from being the author of sin, yet still needs to hold a high view of sovereignty. In that vein, Olson says (p. 122):
According to this God does not permit sin as a spectator; God is never in the spectator mode. Rather, God not only allows sin designedly and willingly, although not approvingly or efficaciously, but he cooperates with the creature in sinning without being stained by the guilt of sin. God both permits and effects a sinful act, such as the rebellion of Adam, because no creature can act apart from God's will. . . . (referencing Arminius) For him God is the first cause of whatever happens; even a sinful act cannot occur without God as its first cause, because creatures have no ability to act without their Creator, who is their supreme cause for existence.
I have to say I found those words quite startling, and I want to be sure to mention that you would be well served to get the book and read them in the full context - taking this snippet out isn't going to do justice to all of the qualifiers he offers. But save for a few words of caveat ("not approvingly or efficaciously" "cooperates . . . without being stained") this is a statement that is downright Calvinist.
What does it mean that God "allows sin . . . not efficaciously," and he also "permits and effects" sinful acts. I think we need to follow Van Til's exhortation to read authors sympathetically (although Van Til may not have always followed his own advice) and not assume that Olson is contradicting himself here. Still, this statement looks contradictory to me and the qualifiers seem too weak to negate the force of saying that God is the "first cause" of sin. Arminians object to Calvinism largely on the basis that it makes God the author of sin, but statements like this push even the Arminians very close to, if not identical with, the Calvinists, in this regard.
Arminians acknowledge that Calvinists put all kinds of qualifiers on their doctrine of sovereignty, to the effect that God exercises His sovereignty in a way that does not make Him the author of sin. But they say that ultimately, the qualifiers are too weak to overcome the force of the Calvinist views on sovereignty, i.e. no matter what qualifiers we use, God still ends up being the author of sin. But I would say the same about this particular passage from an Arminian point of view.
Getting back to the point about reading someone sympathetically I want to assure you that Olson does a yeoman's job of seeking to work through the tensions I have just mentioned, but the above passage illustrates the difficulties we all face in wrestling with the tensions created by various biblical passages.
If I may say one more word about Calvinism and Arminianis before I close I will say this - ultimately I don't think Arminianism accomplishes what it wants to accomplish in response to Calvinism. While the Arminian may claim a kind of moral high ground in denying the Calvinistic form of predestination, thus ostensibly rescuing God from the charge of being the author of sin, I think He still falls short. The Arminian may object that Calvinism says God creates people to damn them (although the Calvinist would object to that wording), but I don't think the Arminian "predestination based on foreknowledge" necessarily rescues them. If God has perfect foreknowledge of those who will believe and won't believe, then why create people you know will deny you and end up in hell anyway? Wouldn't He have been more merciful to not create them in the first place? I don't offer that as any kind of resolution of the debate itself, just to level the playing field and show that I don't think Arminianism provides quite the alternative to Calvinism that it is purported to.
Having said all of that, let me back up and say again how much I appreciated this book. One of the most valuable things Olson says is that we need to be careful about arguing against logical implications, and although I don't remember him using the term, I think he is basically saying we need to be careful about using the reductio ad absurdum against our opponents in this debate. I have seen much debate go this way. Each position has logical outcomes if you follow them to their end. Calvinism can be argued to logically lead to fatalism. Arminianism can logically be argued to lead to open theism. Olson urges us to point out that in general our opponents qualify their positions enough that they don't go to what we see as their logical, or absurd conclusions.
Ultimately, neither view resolves every Scriptural dilemma. Olson says that he chooses the problems that copme with Arminianism, likewise I choose the problems that come with Calvinism. The issues are substantial and not be brushed over, but we can elevate the dialogue here and Olson models how to do this.