A Review Essay: Olson’s Arminian Theology

Don Thorsen

Roger Olson is a prominent evangelical theologian, who champions Arminianism, reflective of the 16th-century theology of Jacob Arminius. Olson laments that few refer to the term Arminianism even though many Christians, especially evangelical Christians, are Arminian “whether they know it or not” (7). His desire is “to clear the good Arminian name of false accusations and charges of heresy or heterodoxy” (9). Such misunderstanding often occurs because of the prominence of Calvinism, reflective of the theology of the Protestant Reformer J. Calvin.

Historically, the contrast between Calvinism and Arminianism came to a head in 1611, when Protestants in the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition met at the Synod of Dort (23, 311-33). The followers of Arminius, known as Remonstrants, challenged the monergistic oriented views of Calvinism. Calvin’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God strongly emphasized the unconditionality of God’s election of people for salvation. The Remonstrants, on the other hand, argued for a more synergistic understanding of the relationship between God and people. Arminianism affirms the primacy of God’s gracious role for people’s salvation, but it also emphasizes people’s genuine free will response of faith.

The so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” illustrate the points of contention between the followers of Calvin and Arminius. According to the Synod of Dort, Calvinism affirms 1) the total depravity of people; 2) the unconditional election of people by God for salvation; 3) the limited atonement Jesus Christ provided for people; 4) the irresistibility of God’s grace; and 5) the perseverance of the saints. (These Five Points are sometimes identified by the acronym TULIP, which summarizes the first letter of the following terms: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints.) In contrast, Arminianism affirms 1) the moral (but not total) depravity of people; 2) the conditional election of people, based upon God’s fore­knowledge; 3) the unlimited atonement Jesus Christ provided for people; 4) the resistibility of God’s grace; and 5) the possibility of people rejecting salvation.

Olson rightly emphasizes the pervasiveness of Arminian beliefs, values, and practices, especially among evangelical Christians. He mentions that many patristic and medieval Christians held views commensurate with Arminianism. However, Olson focuses more on modern examples such as J. Wesley and the Methodist and Holiness traditions. Early Baptists (General Baptists) along with Restorationist churches (Churches of Christ) were Arminian in their theology. So were Pentecostals and “many if not most Baptists” (14). Thus, it is important to have a better understanding of what classical Arminianism is as well as what it is not.

Simply stated, Olson defines Arminianism in the following way: “that form of Protestant theology that rejects unconditional election (and especially unconditional reprobation), limited atonement, and irresistible grace because it affirms the character of God as compassionate, having universal love for the whole world and everyone in it, and extending grace-restored free will to accept or resist the grace of God, which leads to either eternal life or spiritual destruction” (16). With regard to the synergism of Arminianism, Olson states, “Synergism is any theological belief in free human participation in salvation” (17). However, he is careful to contrast Arminianism with “heretical forms in Christian theology [that] are Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism,” that put primacy in the human initiation of salvation, rather than divine initiation (17).


Roger Olson, Ariminian Theology: Myths and Realities

Olson goes to great lengths to clarify the realities of Arminian theology, in contrast to myths and misconceptions that people have. Olson refutes ten myths, and affirms the following: 1) Calvinists and Arminians agree on most issues other than divine predestination and human freedom. 2) Despite commonalities, their views on the relationship between divine predestination and human freedom are incommensurable. 3) Classical Arminian theology affirms the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy and promotes the hallmarks of evangelical faith. 4) The heart of Arminian theology is God’s loving and just character, especially with regard to salvation. 5) Arminianism affirms God’s sovereignty and providence, arguing that God is in charge of everything without controlling everything. 6) A human-centered anthropology is alien to true Arminianism, which is thoroughly God-centered. 7) The material principle of Arminian thought is prevenient grace; all of salvation is entirely of God’s grace. 8) Arminians believe that predestination is God’s decree to elect believers in Jesus Christ and includes God’s foreknowledge of those believers’ faith. 9) Arminian theology is a Reformation theology, one that embraces other distinctive Protestant beliefs, values, and practices. 10) There is no one Arminian doctrine of God’s atonement, and adherents accept the penal substitution theory as well as the governmental theory.

Olson ends his book by talking about rules of engagement for evangelical Calvinists and Arminians. He does this because of the rancor and divisiveness that sometimes occur between adherents of these two prominent traditions of evangelical Christianity. Olson argues, “If both sides would follow some simple, commonsense rules of fairness, they could coexist and cooperate peacefully—evangelicalism would be stronger and its mission enhanced” (244). He considers evangelical Christianity to be a “large tent,” which includes a greater diversity of beliefs, values, and practices than many are willing to accept (245).

There are many reasons to praise Olson’s promotion of classical Arminian theology. I agree that a majority of Christians are functionally Arminian, even though they may not be aware of it. This is as true of non-evangelical Christians as of evangelicals. In part, this is because Christians are often better in practice than they are in theory; that is, they live out their Christianity better than they conceive it theoretically (or theologically). At first glance, my statement seems counterintuitive. Most people—including Christians—tend to think that their lives continually fall short of the kind of lives they envision in their minds and hearts. While it may be true that people indeed find themselves falling short of expectations, their sense of “falling short” may sometimes have as much to do with misguided expectations than with genuine, divinely ordained, biblical expectations. For example, a Calvinist-oriented tendency is to say humbly that God does everything for salvation, and that people do nothing. However, people do not live as if that is the case. On the contrary, they go to church, emphasize evangelism, and do all that they can in order to fulfill the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20).

Olson also makes a contribution to evangelical Christianity by arguing that it represents a larger tent than others give it credit, inside as well as outside evangelicalism. Too often, evangelical Christians become more concerned about saying who is in and who is outside the boundaries of right beliefs, values, and practices. An overemphasis upon polemics and apologetics can become counterproductive. Greater openness to the breadth and diversity of evangelical Christianity can help to bring about better understanding, appreciation, and cooperation for the sake of God.

Let me offer two final considerations that I think will affirm and improve Olson’s promotion of Arminianism. First, his three categories of Calvinism, which is a variation of Augustinianism, along with Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism are inadequate. I prefer to use a fourth category, known as semi-Augustinianism. Olson distinguishes between orthodox and heretical variations in synergism, the latter represented by semi-Pelagianism. He then affirms the orthodox version, referring to it as Arminianism. However, there exists a much longer tradition of semi-Augustinian views, one that Olson alludes to in T. Oden’s affirmation of “paleo-orthodoxy”—the most ancient tradition of Christian beliefs about divine predestination and human freedom (29). Olson seems too fixed upon the Calvinist-Arminian debate, one that has existed among Protestants for centuries. However, he neglects the more ancient debates that occurred, at least, since the time of Augustine and Pelagius in the 4th century. Olson also wrongly categorizes classical Roman Catholic beliefs as being semi-Pelagian (30). Although in practice Roman Catholic abuses toward semi-Pelagianism occur today as well as prior to the Reformation, their theology is more appropriately considered semi-Augustinian. Like Arminianism, Roman Catholics want to emphasize the primacy of God’s role in salvation, without eliminating the genuine—albeit secondary—role of human responsibility. The same semi-Augustinianism is also characteristic of Orthodox Churches and Anglicanism, which Olson mentions briefly, but only as a product of Arminianism. In reality, Anglicanism preceded Arminianism and followed in the tradition of historic semi-Augustinianism.

Second, Olson limits his theological discussion, contrasting everybody with Calvinism. He may have grown up comparing his theology with Calvinism, but that is not the experience of everyone, including Christians who are evangelical. Consider Wesley, for example. While it is true that later in life Wesley adopted the theological term Arminian in naming a journal he edited, the influence of Arminius is negligible in Wesley’s writings. Instead, the semi-Augustinian influence of the Anglo-Catholic tradition pervades Wesley’s life, theology, and ministry. He was far more influenced by Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. Wesley may indeed have been the champion of Arminian-oriented theology in the subsequent development of evangelical Christianity, as Olson suggests (24). However, a reason why the followers of Wesley did not use the language of Arminianism was because they traced their theological heritage through Anglo-Catholicism, rather than Calvinism and Arminianism.

I certainly recommend Olson’s book, especially to evangelical Christians who suffer from a narrow view of their theological history and identity. Olson is correct in identifying Arminian theology as a far more relevant understanding of divine predestination and human freedom than is found in classic Calvinism. If nothing else, Arminianism is more relevant in practice than it is in theory to evangelical views of salvation. Moreover, readers of Olson’s book would benefit from a broadened, more diverse understanding of evangelical Christianity. Too much time and energy is wasted upon judging who is and who is not evangelical. Instead, time and energy should be spent on behalf of the core of evangelical Christianity—fulfilling the Great Commission.

Posted Mar 01, 2009