by James M. Leonard
Roger Olson has written a helpful volume entitled, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Basically, he sets the record straight on a number of issues where Calvinist polemic has falsely depicted Arminian theology. He does this in a consistent and systematic way, first by detailing the false and extreme allegations made by mainstream Calvinists, and then refuting them by examining the theological trajectory on the given topic beginning with Arminius and passing through his earliest followers, then Wesley, and then the 19th century Wesleyan theologians, and then concluding with contemporary Arminian theologians.*
Here is my attempt at an interpretive summation of Olson’s treatment of the various myths about Arminian theology which Calvinists typically propagate, and the truth about Arminian theology. If you want to dispute whether mainstream Calvinists actually accuse Arminians of these positions, or whether Arminians are in fact guilty as charged, you should read the book in its entirety.
Myth #1: Arminian Theology is the Opposite of Calvinist/Reformed Theology. Reality: Arminian and Calvinists have much in common. In this regard, let me add my own comments that Arminian theology affirms the basic historic creeds of Christendom. One wonders how in the world that Arminius would have gained the staunch Calvinist Beza’s support and have been called as pastor and university professor at Leiden by the Dutch Reformed Churches if he didn’t share basic theology with his Calvinist colleagues. The common ground between Arminians and Calvinists will become more obvious as the subsequent myths are debunked.
Myth #2: A Hybrid of Calvinism and Arminianism Is Possible. In this chapter, Olson shows how “Calminianism” is illogical.
Myth #3: Arminianism Is Not an Orthodox Evangelical Option. In this chapter, Olson examines how mainstream Calvinists label Arminianism as either barely Christian or fully heretical. He then looks at the basic beliefs of Evangelicalism and shows how Arminianism affirms basic doctrines such as Divine Revelation, the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith, etc. I suppose this chapter could have been combined with Myth #1.
Myth #4: The Heart of Arminianism Is Belief in Free Will. In reality, Arminians are not driven to their position because they want to cling to free will, as if it were absolutely precious and the one non-negotiable of the debate. The real issue for Arminians is the character of God. Arminians are driven to their position because they see that Calvinism leads to making God the author and the effecting power of sin, and denying God’s goodness.
Myth #5: Arminian Theology Denies the Sovereignty of God. Reality: Arminians view the Sovereignty of God differently than Calvinists, but they still affirm it. Arminians are amazed that Calvinist definitions of Sovereignty seem to imply an absolute determinism which logically leads to God being the author of sin.
Myth #6: Arminianism is a Human-Centered Theology. In refuting this myth, Olson discusses Arminius’ pessimistic anthropology and how his view of Total Depravity continues in a trajectory down to our contemporary Arminian theologians.
Myth #7: Arminianism Is Not a Theology of Grace. This chapter exposes how Calvinists depict the particulars of their system as the exclusive domain of the biblical doctrines of grace. Olson goes on to explain how Arminian theology fully denies a salvation by works, and how God’s grace brings a person to faith, and hence, to salvation.
Myth #8: Arminians Do Not Believe in Predestination. Reality: Arminians do affirm predestination, but they are unwilling to allow Calvinists to define the term. Arminian predestination is defined along the lines set forth by Arminius: “[Predestination] is an eternal and gracious decree of God in Christ, by which He determines to justify and adopt believers, and to endow them with life eternal, but to condemn unbelievers and impenitent persons.” Olson explains that Arminian view of election is grounded “in Christ,” and that the way in which Calvinists ground election in the divine decrees makes election insufficiently christocentric. Olson includes in this chapter a discussion of Open Theism and Middle Knowledge.
Myth #9: Arminian Theology Denies Justification by Grace Alone through Faith Alone. Calvinists are quick to assign what they think are the necessary implications of Arminian theology to Arminianism; thus the charge Arminians with adherence to a works-based salvation. This is somewhat akin to Myth #7 (Arminianism Is Not a Theology of Grace), but focuses on the issue of justification and imputed righteousness. Olson shows how Arminian theologians consistently emphasize justification through faith apart from works. I might add that since Arminians believe salvation is by grace through faith, they cannot simultaneously think that salvation is by works: if salvation is through faith, then it cannot be by works.
Myth #10: All Arminians Believe in the Governmental Theory of the Atonement. The question is whether or not Jesus actually “paid” our sin-debt on the cross, or if Jesus’ death had some other divine meaning to it. In this case, Calvinists have managed to define the Arminian view of the atonement by pointing to exceptions in the Arminian trajectory, rather than by Arminius and the majority of Arminian theologians who do affirm the Penal Satisfaction View of the Atonement.
*The theologians who form this trajectory are the significant contributors to Arminian theology and should be the ones to define the movement. No doubt, there is such a thing as Christian folk religion, and unfortunately, much of it veers off from the legitimate Arminian trajectory. However, any proper analysis of a theological system must be based on its best representatives, not its worst; this is true of both Arminianism and Calvinism. With this in mind, here are the theologians who Olson cites to refute the myths which Calvinists typically attribute to Arminianism: Arminius (1560-1609), Episcopius (1583-1643), John Wesley (1703-1791), Richard Watson (1781-1833), Thomas Summers (1812-1882), William Burton Pope (1822-1903), John Miley (1813-1895); H. Orton Wiley (1877-1961), and contemporary theologians H.C. Thiessen, Thomas Oden, Dale Moody, Stanley Grenz, Leroy Forlines, Jack Cotrell, I. Howard Marshall, Jerry Walls, and Ray Dunning.
A few comments are appropriate about this list. First, Olson does mention the Remonstrant Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), but he does not factor into the discussion much. Secondly, Philip Limborch (1633-1712) is routinely and resoundingly condemned by evangelical Arminians for his human optimism which led to the Pelaginianism of later theological movements which is an entirely different creature from Evangelical and historic Arminianism. Thirdly, Olson should have given consideration to the extremely capable 17th century Arminian Baptist Thomas Grantham. Fourthly, Olson recognizes that John Miley may not have been the most exemplary Arminian; his innovations, however, still do not justify the typical Calvinistic mischaracterizations of Arminianism. Fifthly, Olson discusses the 19th century revivalist Charles Finney, but only to condemn him for his rejection of basic Arminian beliefs, stating that he is a good example of Christian folk religion which has little to do with legitimate Arminian theology. Sixthly, probably due to the success of Calvinists in mischaracterizing Arminians, Thomas Oden does not openly claim to be Arminian, although his theology certainly is Arminian. Seventhly, despite considerable erudition and his various contributions to the defense of Arminianism, Clark Pinnock and his open theism represent a significant and logically unnecessary departure from Arminius’ Arminianism, and hence, Olson does not discuss his various positions in the Arminian trajectory. Eighthly, Robert E. Picirilli who has authored a number of biblical commentaries and written the important Arminian work Grace, Faith, and Free Will should have been included in the discussion of contemporary theologians. Despite these various caveats, if anyone wants to see how wrong Calvinists are in their mischaracterization of Arminianism, Olson’s book is the right source to read.