Another Calvinist Misrepresentation of Arminianism
written by Roger E Olson, PhD
As anyone knows who comes here regularly, I am a self-appointed defender of the truth about classical Arminianism. That often brings me into conflict with Calvinists who misrepresent it. Sometimes it brings me into conflict with fellow Arminians who do the same. Rarely, but occasionally, it brings me into conflict with a Lutheran or other non-Arminian, non-Calvinist. Most of the time, however, the conflict (by which I mean disagreement involving unwanted correction) is with Calvinists because they seem to have a special penchant for misrepresenting Arminianism.
All this began in 1992 when I read the first issue of Modern Reformation magazine. It was entirely devoted to Arminianism and contained articles by leading conservative evangelical Calvinists. I believed (and still believe) the articles contained many misrepresentations of Arminianism (e.g., as semi-Pelagianism). I grew up Arminian, held to it in spite of coming to realize Calvinism is normative in the evangelical theological academy (outside of Wesleyan circles), and noticed that nobody else seemed to be concerned about the rampant and growing chorus of Calvinist voices misrepresenting Arminianism.
During the past twenty years I have worked hard to correct misconceptions and misrepresentations of classical Arminianism especially among evangelicals. My constant call has been for critics of Arminianism to actually read Arminius and classical Arminian theologians and not just rely on Calvinist literature for their information about Arminianism. I have published several pieces (including an entire book) clearing up misconceptions such as that classical Arminianism is semi-Pelagian.
Most recently my article “Election Is for Everyone” (mentioned on the cover as “Roger Olson: Elect Arminians”) is published in Christianity Today (January/February 2011, pp. 40-43). There I once again show express that true, classical Arminianism is not semi-Pelagianism. True Arminians believe that salvation is solely the work of God just as much as Calvinists do.
After twenty years at this, I am losing patience with theologians (including theologically informed and astute pastors and popular writers) who continue to misrepresent Arminianism, especially when they demonstrate no engagement with Arminian literature and continue to rely on Calvinist polemics against Arminianism for their information.
My experience is that the vast majority of Arminian theologians have read and do read Calvinist literature. Why do Calvinists, especially those who claim to be knowledgeable about the subject, continue to rely solely on Calvinist literature for their information about and understanding of Arminianism? I am coming to the point where, losing patience and almost losing civility, I just want to shout at them: “You wouldn’t consider it fair if critics of Calvinism misrepresented it based on sole acquaintance with anti-Calvinist polemics! Why do you continue to speak and write about Arminianism in a critical way when you apparently have not seriously engaged with Arminians’ own writings?”
Every once in a while a new book by a Calvinist theologian crosses my desk. Sometimes I simply heard about it and bought it to read for my own enrichment. Often, however, a magazine or journal editor wants me to review it. Sometimes one just appears from its publisher, perhaps because the author asked the publisher to send me a copy. I always look closely at its treatment of Arminianism. (They almost always contain at least some of that.)
Recently I received a new book (published in 2012) by a Scottish evangelical Calvinist named A. T. B. McGowan (with whom I am not familiar). The book’s title is The Person and Work of Christ: Understanding Jesus (published by Paternoster, an imprint of Authentic Media Limited, a British publisher). One thing that caught my eye immediately is the name Alan P. F. Sell on the cover. Sell is a well-known Reformed theologian whose books I have reviewed in the past. Many years ago now he wrote The Great Debate: Calvinism, Arminianism, and Salvation (1982). I found that to be a very informative and generally reliable treatment of the subject by a Reformed theologian. (Sell was at one time the theological secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.) His doctrinal trilogy Doctrine and Devotion (2000) is one of my favorite brief treatments of Christian doctrine. It is very pietistic (in a good sense) and biblical and fair to viewpoints other than Sell’s own. In fact, I found very little in it with which to disagree even though Sell clearly stands in the Calvinist tradition. I wrote a favorable review of Doctrine and Devotion for Christianity Today. As a result of my reviews of Sell’s books (including others than those mentioned) we became friendly acquaintances. I admire and respect him. I’d say he’s one of my favorite Reformed theologians.
Sell is the General Editor of the series to which McGowan’s book is a contribution (“Christian Doctrines in Historical Perspective”). I assumed that Sell would preview the book and ask the author to correct mistakes and misrepresentations. Perhaps he did and the author declined and Sell authorized its publication anyway. In any case, Sell’s name on the cover as editor of the series induced me to think positively of the book as I opened it to read (and review). However, I was disappointed. Once again, a Calvinist theologian has misrepresented non-Calvinist theology including Arminianism.
First, however, before the criticism, let me say The Person and Work of Christ is a competent and readable exposition and defense of 1) classical high Christology, and 2) classical high Reformed soteriology. The latter exposition and defense is mainly concerned with penal substitution.
My complaints have to do with McGowan’s treatment of penal substitution as normative for evangelical theology. It is, he argues, the “controlling idea” of atonement for “Reformed and evangelical churches” since the Reformation. (p. 107) It is, he says, “a central strand of Protestant theology.” (118) Also, he claims, it lies at the heart of what it means to be “evangelical.” (125) He calls J. I. Packer’s exposition of it “a definitive statement of the teaching of Scripture.” (128) I think all that is at least questionable. Anyone who comes here often knows that I affirm a version of penal substitution while continually flirting with the governmental theory which, to me, anyway, is very close to penal substitution while avoiding some of its problems. McGowan hardly mentions the “Christus Victor” model of atonement, to which many evangelicals are attracted, and never mentions the governmental theory. He mentions fellow Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell’s theory of the atonement but only one aspect of it—“vicarious repentance” (of which he is critical).
Overall, it seems to me, McGowan is too narrow in his understanding of the meaning of “evangelical.” There has never been a time when all evangelicals affirmed the penal substitution theory of the atonement. But, then, that begs the question what counts as “evangelical.” I could be wrong, but I get the impression from McGowan that “evangelicalism” is, for him, a small tent with conservative Reformed theology at its center. The vast majority of his sources are conservative Calvinist theologians.
My main complaint, however, has to do with his treatment of Arminianism. The core of it appears in his chapter on “The Extent of the Atonement.” He predictably affirms limited, particular atonement. Shockingly, to me, anyway, he implies that those who disagree (which would be mainly but not exclusively Arminians) believe Christ died only to make it possible to save ourselves. (148) Of course, I’ve heard this before. It has almost mantra status among evangelical Calvinists. But it’s simply untrue. And it amounts to a vicious calumny against fellow Christians. Calvinists need to stop saying this. I don’t mind if they say “From our point of view, the good and necessary consequence of universal atonement would be that…” so long as they go on to say “But, fortunately, Arminians and other evangelicals who deny particular atonement don’t actually believe that.”
Now, to be perfectly fair, here is what McGowan actually says about believers in universal atonement: “There are, of course, many Christians who take a different view on this matter [of the extent of the atonement]. There are some who argue that the death of Christ is like a blank cheque [sic], which anyone with faith and repentance can draw upon. The problem with this view is that it seems to cast doubt on the sovereign grace of God and to put salvation into our own hands. It becomes a matter of what we do, what we contribute and what we decide and in some sense implies that ultimately it is our decision that saves us. The Reformed doctrine, by contrast, is that Christ died for a specific and definite group of people, the elect, who will certainly and unavoidably be saved. In other words, Christ died to save us, not to make it possible for us to save ourselves.” (147-148)
Now, let’s examine that carefully because it is carefully worded. McGowan, like Piper and others who make this point, does not come right out and say Arminians (and other believers in universal atonement) say they believe we save ourselves. That’s a good thing because that would make him a liar. However, the structure of the statement strongly implies that that is what McGowan thinks Arminians really believe whether they admit it or not. At the very least he should have included the caveat that Arminians and others who deny “particular atonement” explicitly deny they believe this. Otherwise, who could blame evangelical administrators, for example, of concluding based on what he says that Arminians believe they save themselves (and as a result shut Arminians out of evangelicalism)?
Also, the “blank cheque” analogy is foreign to classical Arminian theology. It completely ignores the key Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace.
The proper language McGowan (and others) should use is that of “good and necessary consequence” with the clear caveat that Arminians and other evangelical believers in universal atonement do not believe it. At best McGowan’s treatment of the subject is sloppy. At worst it amounts to false witness. No one could blame a student reading what McGowan says for concluding that Arminians are not really Christians. After all, one cannot be a Christian and believe he saves himself!
When McGowan turns to Arminianism explicitly (149-15) he again misrepresents it. For example, when paraphrasing the points of The Remonstrance of 1610 he says it affirmed that “It is possible for believers to ‘fall from grace’ and so to lose their salvation.” (149) That is simply untrue. The Remonstrance said only that the matter deserves further study of “Holy Writ.” It did not affirm the possibility of apostasy. (McGowan doesn’t even provide a citation so that readers can go check out what The Remonstrance says for themselves.)
Then, McGowan says “The Reformed rejection of Arminianism centres [sic] on two great convictions. First, that all human beings are sinners who are cut off from God because of sin and are therefore unable to do anything to reverse or change their condition. Second, that only by the sovereign grace of God can sinners be lifted out of their sinful condition, have their sins forgiven and be restored to fellowship with God.” (15) Of course, he were acquainted with real Arminianism, classical Arminian theology, he would know that it agrees completely with both points. The issues are not those.
It would have been helpful to McGowan and his readers if he had read Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities by yours truly or any similar exposition of classical Arminian theology by an Arminian (e.g., The Transforming Power of Grace by Thomas Oden).
I hope to see the day when no Calvinist author will write about Arminian theology without representing it correctly and fairly. I had hoped that by now that would be the case. My hopes were dashed by McGowan (and his editor whom I hold partly responsible for the errors and misrepresentations in the book). All I can say is “it could have been worse.” I’ve read worse. But that’s no excuse.
We all (Calvinists and Arminians and everyone else) need to bend over backwards to be fair in our treatments of fellow evangelicals’ theologies. There’s nothing wrong with disagreement so long as it is informed and fair. Being fair, in my book, necessarily includes admitting that fellow evangelicals with whom you disagree do not actually believe what you say are the (bad) “good and necessary consequences” of their explicit beliefs. I followed that principle carefully in Against Calvinism where I made clear that my main concerns have to do with the good and necessary consequences of what Calvinists believe.
For the original post with comments, go to: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2013/01/another-calvinist-misrepresentation-of-arminianism/