Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. By Roger E. Olson. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006. 250 pp. $28.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-2841-8.
The protestant, intramural, debate between Calvinism and Arminianism is probably one of the most well-known theological debates within protestant theology. Of course, as all good theologians and philosophers know, in order to truly contest or refute any particular view that seems to be contrary to one’s own position, one must, first, properly understand that position and, second, be able to restate the claims of that view, in one’s own words, such that those who hold that view agree with your restatement of their claims. Roger E. Olson, a well-known Arminian scholar, claims that Calvinists categorically get their restatements of Arminian theology wrong. Hoping to clear away some of the theological fog that Olson sees gravitating around the Calvinist understanding of Arminianism, Olson has written, in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, what is probably the clearest contemporary explanation of Arminian theology. In this book review we will consider the purpose and intended audience of this book. We will then provide an overview of the general structure of the book, and how Olson sets out to accomplish his purpose. We will finish with some general observations concerning the relative worth of this book.
Olson states, in the preface, that “this book was born out of a burning desire to clear the good Arminian name of false accusations and charges of heresy or heterodoxy (p. 9).” This book is written in order to clear up “confusion about Arminian theology and respond to the main myths and misconceptions about it that are widespread in evangelicalism today (p. 10).” Olson believes “in turning to history for correct definitions and not allowing popular usage to redefine good theological terms (Ibid.).” As such, “this book attempts to fill a gap in current theological literature. To the best of my knowledge no book currently in print in English is devoted solely to explaining Arminianism as a system of theology (p. 12.).”In light of the fact that Olson is seeking to attain as wide an audience as possible (as the best way to clear up false accusations that have been spread around a large group of people is to address the entire group all together), “so the book is not written primarily for specialists (although I hope they will benefit from and enjoy reading it). (p. 10.)” Indeed, Olson notes, “this book is for two kinds of people: (1) those who do not know Arminian theology but want to, and (2) those who think they know about Arminianism but really don’t (p. 12).” This last category probably includes a lot more people than one would at first think, as, from even a cursory reading of this book, one discovers that, according to Olson, some of the most active, most referenced, and well-respected Calvinists, such as Edwin H. Palmer, Michael Horton, James Montgomery Boice, and Paul Helm, are guilty of distorting the claims of Arminian theology (some more than others). If these great theologians propagate errors concerning Arminian theology, then it is pretty certain that many of us have believed those errors. As such, this book is intended, not just for any and all Christians, but, also, for any serious student of theology, regardless of their theological bent. The central thesis of Olson’s book is that “Arminianism is at a disadvantage in this controversy because it is so rarely understood and so commonly misrepresented both by its critics and by its supposed defenders (p. 15).”
Olson is writing in order to set the record straight about Arminian theology. In this book Olson takes on, in 10 chapters, 10 of the most common and frequently cited claims about Arminian theology that are, according to Olson, distortions of true Arminian theology. The book begins with an introduction to Arminian theology. We are introduced to the key terms in the Calvinism/Arminianism debate, a brief history of the development of Arminian theology (starting with Jacobus Arminius himself, and leading us right up to the present day), a brief overview of the central tenets of Arminian theology, and a concluding word on some of the myths and errors that are widely believed. One of the most interesting parts of the short history of Arminian theology is the list of Christian theologians and scholars who were Arminians. This list includes Simon Episcopius, Hugo Grotius, Philip Limborch, John Taylor, Charles Chauncy, John Wesley, John Fletcher, Richard Watson, Thomas Summers, William Burton Pope, John Miley, Charles Finney, H. Orton Wiley, and, more recently, Thomas Oden, Dale Moody, Stanley Grenz, Clark Pinnock, H. Leroy Forlines, Jack Cotrell, I. Howard Marshalls and Jerry Walls. Olson refers to, cites, and interacts with the works of all of these great authors throughout this book. In his conclusion he sets out a number of rules that he thinks will help the Calvinist/Arminian debate to be more fruitful, and less antagonistic. The rules listed are well worth reading, and adhering to, by any and all students of theology.
Each chapter is set up to be read independently, and, therefore, there is some repetition. Each chapter begins with an explanation of the false claim or accusation about Arminian theology, followed by an explanation of what Arminian theology really claims. This is followed by a historical section in which Olson traces, through the authors mentioned above, the basic claims of Arminian theologians throughout the historical development of Arminian theology. Olson also notes where certain “Arminian” theologians have strayed off of the beaten path, into error. Olson points out that in properly portraying Arminian theology it is intellectually dishonest to use those “Arminians” who fell into error as examples of what Arminian theology teaches. He points out that to do so would be as if an Arminian took Schleiermacher as the stereotypical Calvinist, and then claimed that Calvinism was heretical because of Schleiermacher’s errors.
The 10 myths that Olson interacts with are:
1. Arminian Theology is the Opposite of Calvinist/Reformed Theology
2. A Hybrid of Calvinism and Arminianism is Possible
3. Arminianism is not an Orthodox Evangelical Option
4. The Heart of Arminianism is Belief in Free Will
5. Arminian Theology denies the Sovereignty of God
6. Arminiansism is a Human-Centered Theology
7. Arminianism is not a theology of Grace
8. Arminians do not believe in Predestination
9. Arminian theology denies justification by Grace alone through faith alone
10. All Arminians believe in the governmental theory of the atonement
All in all Olson does a great job of showing that these 10 claims, frequently found in Calvinistic polemics, distort Arminian theology and do not tell the whole truth. Olson’s main Calvinist foil is Edwin Palmer, though Olson quotes from numerous Calvinist authors, as noted above. Olson posits the theory that Philip Limborch is the primary Arminian source who is used by Calvinists to discredit Arminian theology. However, Olson notes in almost every chapter, Limborch was not faithful to Arminian principles, and, therefore, should not be considered as a trustworthy spokesperson for Arminian theology.
Whether or not one ends up agreeing with Arminian theology, as Olson portrays it in this book, this book is necessary reading for anybody who wishes to actually get involved in the Calvinist/Arminian debate. Even if the reader ends up disagreeing (as is the case of this reader on a number of issues) with Olson’s Arminian theology, at least the reader will be better able to articulate the view that they disagree with, and, therefore, they will have a real, intelligent, disagreement. The worth of this book is that it gives the reader insight into what Arminians really think, and, as such, this book is a necessary addition to the library of anybody who is interested in Christian theology, whether it is for personal interests or for academic interests. Olson, in this book, seems to be presenting a case, for Arminianism, before a judge and jury who are all Calvinists. Olson seems to be begging this jury for recognition as a legitimate evangelical theological system. This book is an easy and enjoyable read. Olson pulls no punches. He seems to be seeking friendly disagreement in a godly atmosphere. He states clearly that he thinks that Arminianism is the true interpretation of scripture (indeed he frequently states that he considers true Arminianism to be the theological system that is the most faithful to both biblical teachings and the early church fathers.), but he is also able to appreciate the works of the many great Calvinist thinkers.
Though I find myself in disagreement with Olson on a number of important theological issues, I found this book to be well worth my time, informative, and helpful for a better understanding of Arminian theology. I highly recommend this book to all Christians of every theological flavour. This book will help Calvinists to better interact with Arminian theology, it will help Arminians to better articulate their own views, and it will help those who don’t know where they are situated to make an enlightened decision about the viability and theological truthfulness of Arminian theology.