Book Review: Arminian Theology – By Roger E. Olson

roger-olson-arminian-theologyLetter IIn On Liberty the Nineteenth Century British philosophy John Stuart Mill wrote that “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them… he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

That is, we must not lock ourselves into echo chambers, only listening to voices that sound like our own.

Roger Olson‘s Arminian Theology is a book that I saw sitting in my library bookstore and piqued my interest, and my curiosity, mainly because I had never read a true defense of Arminian Theology – and believing the thoughts of John Stuart Mill presented above to be true – I have been feeling it my duty for quite some time to read another side of the argument. However, there is something else which should be added to the thoughts of Mill, and those are thoughts of C.S. Lewis, from his book An Experiment in Criticism where he writes that “We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it if it was very good and ended up by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.” I went into this book giving it the benefit of the doubt, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The goal of Olson’s book is, as the subtitle points out, to discuss the myths and realities of Arminian theology. He begins by giving the outline of the age-old debate, by defining his terms, and by giving a basic overview of orthodox Arminian and Calvinist positions. He then goes on to address the myths of Arminian theology, to include: Arminianism is the opposite of Calvinism; a hybrid of Arminianism and Calvinism is possible; Arminianism is not orthodox evangelicalism; the heart of Arminianism is free will; Arminian theology denies the sovereignty of God; is human-centered; is not a theology of grace; doesn’t believe in predestination; denies justification by grace alone through faith alone; and believes in the governmental theory of atonement.

Olson systematically goes through providing explanations for why each of the myths regarding Arminian theology is false, and offering sources which explain the actual Arminian position, usually to include John Welsey, Simon Episcopius, Thomas Oden, and many others (as well as Arminius himself).

One downside of this (though it does show Olson’s sincerity) is that he is often forced to point out that many of Arminianisms main proponents do believe in and teach the myths put forth, though Olson regulates these to misunderstandings of Arminiansm – still, it does mean that not all of them are really myths, or at least that Olson’s understanding of Arminianism isn’t necessary uniform without that theological group.

Overall, Olson does a good job explaining his position and clarifying the position of Arminianism, and I have to say that walked away with a better understanding of where they are coming from (though I’d still posit that there are many gaps in the argument).

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Olson’s writing is his honesty and willingness to acknowledge the weaknesses in his own system. For instance Olson can be found noting that “all caviling aside, Arminians know that their belief in libertarian freedom is a mystery (not a contradiction).” He also does well at representing his opponent’s view, and understanding why his opponents object to his system: “These two views are incommensurable. To the Arminian, compatibilist free will is no free will at all. To the Calvinist, incompatibilist free will is a myth; it simply cannot exist because it would amount to an uncaused effect, which is absurd.”

Finally, Olson also offers a very good formula to abide by when critiquing other systems. Define your terms, be able to describe you opponents view as he would before opposing it, make sure you’re not attacking a straw man, admit your own weaknesses, and avoid attributing to the opposing party things they explicitly reject. All are great advice for anybody who wants their opponents to take them seriously, and I think Olson plays by his own rules fairly well in this text.

That said, I would recommend this text to Arminians and Calvinists alike.  It is a good read, and great for clarifying the Arminian position.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The most common root of confusion in theology is misunderstanding of terms.” (p15)

-“I have concluded that appealing to Scripture alone cannot prove one side right and the other side wrong… It is largely a matter of that mystery called perspective. Philosophers have called it ‘blik.’ It is a basic way of seeing reality. We see the world as such-and-such even when proof is lacking.” (p70)

“And Arminians do not see a way to embrace divine determinism (monergism) and avoid making God the author of sin and evil.” (p98)

-“A concept that is compatible with anything and everything is empty.” (p100)

-“The free will of human beings in Arminius’s theology and in classical Arminianism is more properly denoted freed will.”

Specific Criticisms

While I am a fan of this text, it is not without its share of difficulties. On of the main ones is that Olson addresses the ‘myth’ that the heart of Arminianism is free will, and then essentially argues the opposite (one way around this criticism would be to say that he means for the heart of Arminianism to be the ‘freed will’, but this is never stated outright). Hence we find Olson continually arguing in favor of free will, especially from the standpoint that “[free will] is necessary to protect God’s reputation.” (p98) 

Another issue is that the text is mainly directing his argument against ‘high calvinism’ or hypercalvinism. Olson acknowledges early on that hypercalvinism is not the primary view within Calvinism, and yet it is hypercalvinism that most of his arguments are aimed against.

Other areas include what one might call ‘gaps in logic’. For instance, Olson says that “Thus predestination is conditional rather than unconditional; God’s electing foreknowledge is caused by the faith of the elect.” (p35) and again, “Rather, the decisions cause God to know them.” (p188) How can an effect precede a cause? This is never addressed by Olson.

There are also instances such as these three quotations; Olson wants to make the point that humans action is necessary for salvation, but they don’t play a part, they cooperate but don’t contribute, they are a partner but play no part. “Thus salvation is conditional, not unconditional; humans play a role and are not passive or controlled by any force, internal or external.” (p37) “Cooperation does not contribute to salvation, as if God does part and humans do part; rather cooperation with grace in Arminian theology is simply nonresistance to grace.” (p36) “In salvation, God’s grace is the superior partner; human free will (nonresistance) is the lesser partner.” (p63) Frankly, I don’t think Olson makes his point clear at all.

There are various other nitpicks I have with the text, but one of the only other ones worth noting here is his statement that “Arminian belief in general redemption is not universal salvation; it is universal redemption from Adam’s sin.”(p33) My problem with this statement is that no proof text is provided to support it, and it is presumably an idea that is added on extra-biblically in the need to account for all the facts.

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