Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: Arminian Theology

Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. By Roger E. Olson.
Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic (2006). 250 pp.

Baylor University professor of theology Roger E. Olson tackles the daunting task of clearing up misconceptions held by those in the so-called Reformed tradition regarding Arminian theology. After a lengthy introduction in which he gives a quick overview of traditional Arminianism, he launches into what is essentially his Top Ten List[1] of misconceptions others hold regarding his theological tradition. In this introduction the fundamental divide between the two traditions is made apparent. Terms like “cooperation” and “nonresistance” are attributed to the pre-salvation individual as they move from darkness into light. (p 36-6) The prevenient grace necessary for this “cooperation” is not salvific in and of itself. In this we can start to see where Calvinists often run with these ideas and come to associate Arminianism with some form of Pelagianism.

Olson fills a much-needed gap in accurate understanding – not just for Calvinists, but also for those in his own tradition! Misconceptions abound, as Olson illustrates throughout his book with different anecdotes from both sides of the theological aisle. The organizational structure of the book makes it more than just a one time read. Rather, it serves as a handy reference as different topics come up in a theological discussion. Each chapter addresses one significant myth. In this regard, each chapter stands alone. One potential downside for the individual reading the book cover-to-cover is that this creates a fair amount of repetition. Olson himself acknowledges this in his introduction. This “downside” however, is a strength of this book. One does not have to read the entire book to understand Olson’s argument. The information needed to understand each chapter is contained within each chapter.

One area where I take issue with Olson would be in his use of the phrases: “Arminians of the heart,” and “Arminians of the head.” He lumps those who give Arminianism a black eye into the “Arminian of the head” category, e.g. Finney, Limborch, and others. The implication here is that Olson, and others of his persuasion “get it” in a way that other theologians have not. Although the tone throughout Olson’s work is commendably irenic, this phraseology does serve as a bit of a spiritual jab against those of us who do not “get it.”

The best chapter in the book would be the 2nd myth concerning a hybridization of Calvinism and Arminianism. This so called “Calminianism” is not a coherent theological system. This chapter does an excellent job explaining why this hybrid is not possible. “Of course, if we do not care about logic, then we inhabit an artificially constructed Calminian house built on sand.” (p 68) This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. That said, on page 73 Olson displays the fundamental theological mistake[2] of his system. Quoting Fritz Guy, Olson affirms that “[i]n the character of God love is more fundamental than control.” Throughout Olson’s book there are statements that demonstrate this idea of elevating the love of God above all other attributes. This inappropriate elevation of one attribute of our Triune God is where the rational for the primary error of Olson’s system can be found.

This book was an immensely valuable read. Much that has previously simply been assumed has been clarified in my thinking regarding Arminianism. Although I feel as though Olson is defending his position using a theologically modified vocabulary[3], he has done a great service to the church by laying out these myths in a helpful format. This was theology done well. He did not resort to ad hominem attacks, or turn the tables and exploit the “myths” of Calvinism. He exhorts us to discuss this respectfully, with love, and without assumption. We should “strictly avoid attributing beliefs to adherents of the other side that those adherents explicitly reject.” (p 243) Even though many in the reformed camp infer that Pelagianism may appear to be the logical conclusion of Arminian thought, to force that heresy on those who do flatly reject the claims of Pelagius would be unfair. They may be demonstrating a lack of understanding of the weight and logical conclusion of their thought, but their ignorance is preferable to heresy![4]

[1] Although he gives no credit to either David Letterman or his network, I’m sure the omission is purely an oversight.
[2] In my humble opinion…
[3] His definitions of grace, predestination and election have been subtly modified in order to make his theological system more coherent. Essentially it seems as though his position is one based more on “taste” than biblical thinking. The implications of scriptural passages such as Romans 9 don’t appeal to his theological “taste,” so this is where he lands.
[4] This statement is intended as a generalization, not as the backhanded insult it may appear to be on the surface – many would say the same thing about Calvinism.

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