[This post was originally published at Dr. Olson’s blog, where comments can be made.]
Back to Theology: Again with Arminianism
BY ROGER E. OLSON
When I first began this blog my primary intention was to focus on reclaiming original Arminianism and correct the many misrepresentations of Arminianism especially among evangelicals (including theologians). I hope that by now, after many years of fighting this battle (against misrepresentations) that began in about 1992, I have made a dent in the armor of the opposition. (I know I’m mixing metaphors but that has never stopped me from doing it!)
I’ve explained here many, many times before what launched me on this crusade to rescue and reclaim true, historical, classical Arminianism from the frequent misrepresentations of it by people who have every reason to know better (because they are theologically educated). I have told numerous stories of misrepresentations made in my presence (e.g., “Arminianism is just Pelagianism!”) and in writing (e.g., “Arminianism is man-centered theology”). I don’t need to go over these now. I’ll just offer one more example my eyes just now fell on.
I’ve been reading a relatively old book about the history of Christian ethics—a project I am working on for myself. In the chapter on John Wesley (Chapter 12) Waldo Beach and/or H. Richard Niebuhr (both editors of the book entitled Christian Ethics: Sources of the Living Tradition) says/say “There is much of the Puritan in Wesley: He said of himself he was ‘within a hair’s breadth of Calvinism.’ But his stress on human free will, over against the Calvinistic theory of divine decree, and on the possibility of perfection in this life, puts him at considerable remove from the Puritanism of his day and in a somewhat median position between Calvinism and Arminianism, the view which, shortly speaking, lays responsibility for human salvation as much upon man as upon God.” (italics added for emphasis)
Now, if this were just a one-time or even rare misrepresentation of Arminianism, it would be different. Instead, it speaks very concisely the main misrepresentation of Arminianism that became and still is dominant among Protestant Christians—especially (but not solely) outside the Wesleyan and a few other traditions. In other words, Lutherans and Reformed Protestants very frequently utter (or print) this misrepresentation in these or other words.
This is why I wrote Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities(InterVarsity Press)—to correct once and for all, with numerous quotations from Arminius and leading Arminian theologians this misconception and misrepresentation. All I can do now is point readers back to that book or, if they don’t want to read a whole book on the subject (which they should if they are confused and really want to be unconfused!), back to my earlier writings here. (Just use a search engine with my name and key words and you’ll find a wealth of essays.) Or if they want to know what other Arminians think, I point them to the web site of the Society of Evangelical Arminians (www.evangelicalarminians.org).
What is obvious to me from my own almost thirty year study of (especially) Reformed misrepresentations of Arminianism is that very few of the guilty have ever read Arminius himself or any classical evangelical Arminian theologians. Almost all get all their (mis)information from other Reformed theologians such as Charles Hodge. By Hodge’s time (mid-19th century) “Arminianism” had come to be defined by what might be called the “left wing” of the Remonstrant movement. To be sure, as I document in Arminian Theology there were some rationalist Arminians among the Remonstrants and in the Church of England who denied original sin, total depravity and seemed to embrace and teach something like semi-Pelagianism if not outright Pelagianism.
These were the “Arminians” best known to Jonathan Edwards when he wrote against Arminianism. At the same time, of course, rationalism and liberal theology were beginning to rear their heads among Reformed theologians. Friedrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834) came after Edwards, of course, but was not the first “Reformed” theologian to embrace new ways of thinking that Edwards would have considered heretical. Somehow, however, the heretics among the Reformed did not bring disrepute on the whole Reformed tradition or Reformed theology itself.
There is no doubt that in the late 17th century Arminianism began to split apart. The division was between what we might call the “evangelical Arminians” and the “liberal Arminians.” By “liberal” here I mean “free thinking under the influence of the Enlightenment” and “accommodating to modernity’s humanistic tendencies.”
But I have already documented all this in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities and proven there that evangelical Arminianism always existed and is the true legacy of Jacob Arminius (d. 1609). John Wesley, for example, was an Arminian who was hardly touched, if at all, by rationalism and Enlightenment humanism.
True, historical, classical, evangelical Arminianism does notlay responsibility for human salvation as much upon man as upon God. And anyone who does that cannot claim to be truly Arminian. I have proven this much in Arminian Theology and still call on Calvinist teachers to at least read it and consider the proof I give there with numerous quotations from Arminius himself and from faithful Arminian theologians since him.
Over the years since its publication I have given away numerous copies of Arminian Theology to Calvinist theologians, students, preachers, teachers with the condition that they read it and respond. Only a few have responded. Most have not—even though they promised to.
One Calvinist critic who reviewed the book for a publication responded simply by arguing that I have (in the book) redefined “Arminianism.” But the only way he could say that is by started with the common misrepresentation of Arminianism as valid. I did not redefine Arminianism; he and other Calvinists redefined Arminianism.
Here is exactly what that would look like “the other way around.” Suppose I and all Arminians vilified “Reformed theology” using Schleiermacher or hyper-Calvinism as the norm for true Calvinism and then responded to a Calvinist who proved that mistaken by saying “Well, he’s simply redefined Reformed theology.” He, the Reformed/Calvinist person, would be well within his rights to object most strenuously. And yet, the World Communion of Reformed Churches is riddled with liberal theology or is at least “theologically plural.”
What I discovered in the 1990s and somewhat before was that the evangelical Protestant world of serious Christians was somewhat like American politics as we now see it “happening”—very little real concern for truth and both parties simply shouting at each other and seeking to undermine each other. It was not difficult for the Reformed evangelicals to shout down the few Arminians and gradually the latter seemed to me to have given up and retreated into their own corners or dropped the label “Arminian” altogether.
When I entered the “world” of American evangelical theology as a wannabe evangelical theologian, first as a student, then as a writer and professor, I discovered just how privileged Reformed theology/Calvinism was in the power centers of the American evangelical movement. I was urged to drop the label “Arminian” to “fit in” if I wanted to be respected and published—within the evangelical movement. Many of my evangelical Arminian friends and acquaintances called themselves “moderately Reformed”—in order not to be ostracized by all but Wesleyans (most of who freely and gladly admit to being Arminian).
Finally I decided to throw down the gauntlet, so to speak, and write an article about true, historical, evangelical Arminianism for Christianity Today. At that time I was already well-known to the editors of CT and had a friend on the masthead as “executive editor.” I asked the editors if they would consider my article for publication and they agreed to do just that. I wrote the article—about my own spiritual journey as an Arminian evangelical/evangelical Arminian and refuted some of the popular calumnies against true, historical, classical Arminianism.
During the process of considering the article for publication I heard back from my friend that two “theological consulting editors” of CT (both names would be familiar to most evangelical readers here) tried to stop its publication. Both were Calvinists. There was nothing in the article attacking Calvinism or Calvinists except for misrepresenting Arminianism. The journey of the article through the editorial process was long and arduous—both for CT’s editors and for me. I suspect that my friend overcame the Calvinists’ objections and finally the article was published. But they gave it the embarrassing title “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Arminian.” To me that was belittling and marginalizing. But I was glad the article finally saw the light of day in the print pages of CT.
That article was the public beginning of my crusade to correct popular American evangelical misconceptions and misrepresentations of Arminianism. From there I went on to write Arminian Theology and Against Calvinism and other articles and this blog.
A very odd thing happened along that journey. Every time I met a famous Arminian scholar I would say to him or her “It’s good to meet a fellow Arminian.” Often the person, usually a Methodist of some kind, would respond “I’m not an Arminian.” And yet I knew from reading their articles and books that their soteriology was solidly Arminian and many of them belonged to historically Arminian Protestant churches.
Two of them were Thomas Oden and I. Howard Marshall. Both denied being Arminian—to my face. I was taken aback, to say the least. And yet, I understood that, even though both were Methodists, being openly “Arminian” among evangelicals in America (yes, I know Marshall was Scottish but much of his fame and influence was in the U.S.) carried a stigma they did not want—like a capital “A” on the forehead. I found myself almost alone as an unapologetic, open Arminian among American evangelicals—until some time after I began my crusade. Then a few others came out of the closet, so to speak, admitting publicly to being Arminian. Of course, many Pentecostals, Free Will Baptists, and many in the Wesleyan tradition always admitted to being Arminian, but most of them were not striving for influence in the “centers of evangelical power and influence.” Most of them were staying in their own corners, so to speak, where being Arminian was not controversial.
Then a very strange thing happened. In 2009 I was invited to speak at a symposium commemorating Arminius’s death in 1609—held at Andrews University, a Seventh-day Adventist institution in Michigan. I discovered there at SDA people consider themselves Arminian! There I found myself almost a hero for defending Arminianism. And I discovered that SDA people can be evangelicals.
At the same time I was pushing CT to publish at least one article during that year about Arminius—recognizing his death and legacy as they were recognizing Calvin’s birth in 1509 and his legacy with one article about Calvin in each issue throughout the year. They declined to do it.
I realize that many evangelicals consider me a kind of Don Quixote in my quest and crusade to defend the honor of true, historical, classical Arminianism. What’s the point? Why spend so much time and energy on something so trivial? Well, all I can say is that I have felt called to it. Why else would I have done it? Being openly and unapologetically Arminian among non-Wesleyan evangelicals has not benefited me in any way. Even many friends among American evangelicals who respect much of my work in theology and like me as a person seem embarrassed by this “side” of me—embarrassed for me, that is, not for them. It’s considered eccentric and possibly a waste of time and energy.
What’s my motive? Besides feeling called to it? I have always wanted all evangelicals to know there is an alternative to Calvinism that is biblically faithful, intellectually serious, and spiritually fruitful. I hope that I have accomplished that to some degree.