And Now, a Word about Arminianism

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by Roger E. Olson

My blog is called “My evangelical, Arminian theological musings.” I’ve “mused” about evangelicalism. Now it’s time to begin a brief (I hope) series of posts about Arminianism.

Not long ago I met a well-known philosopher-theologian whose first comment to me was “Well, I’ve never met anyone who actually called himself an Arminian before.” Many years ago John Wesley wrote a brief essay entitled “The Question ‘What Is an Arminian?’ Answered by a Lover of Free Grace.” He began it with this line: “To say ‘This man is an Arminian,’ has the same effect on many hearers, as to say ‘This man is a mad dog’.” Near the essay’s end Wesley wrote, “[h]ow can any man know what Arminius held, who has never read one page of his writings? Let no man bawl against Arminians, till he knows what the term means….”

To that, I say a hearty “Amen!” Far too many people have a negative opinion of Arminianism and Arminians who have never read Arminius or any real (i.e., classical) Arminian theologians. Most of the critics of Arminianism that I have read (and I’ve read many!) seem only to have read Reformed secondary sources such as Charles Hodge or (more recently) R. C. Sproul. I rarely read a Reformed critique of Arminianism that is even close to being correct.

That’s why I wrote Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities a few years ago (InterVarsity Press). There I discuss and correct ten common misconceptions about Arminian theology. My goal (again, call me Don Quixote if you wish!) is to recover the good reputation of Arminianism so that those who are Arminian can call themselves what they are without wincing.

A few years ago I met two very well-known Arminian theologians at a national professional society meeting. Both are evangelical Methodists. To both I said, “It’s good to meet a fellow Arminian.” Both replied (separately), “I’m not an Arminian.” And yet, having read their books and articles, I know they agree entirely with Arminius and classical Arminianism about almost everything. Why do they deny being Arminian? I can only assume it is because in some evangelical circles embracing “Arminian” as a label can cause you real trouble.

Again, I’m sure someone will ask, “Why do you care about a label?” Well, why do Calvinists care about the label “Reformed?” And yet they do go around defending it and explaining what it means against those who misrepresent it. We all have certain labels we care about. I’ve been an Arminian my entire life (even before I knew what it was!) and I’m not willing to discard the label just because some people insist on going around misrepresenting it.

I think one of the funniest events about that label was during my Bible college days. This was a Pentecostal Bible college and almost all Pentecostals are avid Arminians whether they know it or not. The professor mentioned that we were Arminians and a sweet young student piped up loudly with, “Who would want to be from Armenia?”

Right now I’m working on two plenary session addresses for an upcoming conference on Arminian theology at Andrews University (the Seventh-Day Adventist University and Seminary in Michigan). (For those interested it is October 14-17; you can find information about it by going to Andrews University’s web site.) My first address will be “Arminian Theology is God-centered Theology.” There I will prove, against those who claim Arminianism is “man-centered,” that classical Arminianism has always believed and taught that, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism). Those who argue that Arminianism is “man-centered” have simply not read Arminius or Wesley or any other historical, classical Arminian theologians.

My second address will be “Arminian Theology is Evangelical Theology.” There I will quote extensively from Arminius, Wesley and other classical Arminians to prove that, contrary to critics, classical Arminianism has always believed and taught that salvation is entirely by God’s grace through faith alone to the exclusion of good works (as any basis for salvation).

I have come to the conclusion that some critics of Arminian theology are willfully ignorant as they continue to bash Arminianism as, for example, semi-Pelagian and man-centered. I have sent them my book and pointed them to passages in Arminius’ writings and in historical, classical Arminian theology that disprove these things. But they continue to utter them anyway. Some of them have too much invested in their crusades against Arminianism to back down now.

I firmly believe and will continue to argue that Arminian theology is a viable evangelical theology that fully adheres to the five great solas of the Reformation: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus and soli Deo gloria.

To those curious about what Arminian theology really is and why it’s important, stay tuned. Here’s a bit to whet the appetite: By-and-large today’s numerous “young, restless, Reformed” Christians are misled to think that Calvinism is the only intellectually respectable, biblical, evangelical alternative. They are largely unaware of anything between Calvinism, as taught to them by the likes of John Piper and R. C. Sproul (filtered to them through popularizers like Mark Driscoll), and the heresy of semi-Pelagianism (the belief that humans initiate their own salvation and contribute to it — the theology of “Touched by an Angel”). They are largely ignorant of Arminianism. I don’t care about the label merely as a label. I care about the reputation of God and, in my considered opinion, only classical Arminianism preserves and protects the all-important biblical truths expressed in Philippians 2:12-13.