Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2006), pp. 250. $14.07.
Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities is a book which examines a few of the main tenets of Arminian Theology in a fresh way. While most systematic theologies have sufficed to discuss and explain Arminianism in full detail, author Roger Olson has attempted in this work to defend Arminianism from incorrect caricatures from those who do not hold the position. As one who is an unapologetic Arminian, Olson attempts to eliminate ten of the common “myths” that he believes others have created about Arminianism. Olson creatively defends Arminianism in this work as he seeks to protect this theological system from the attacks of some who claim it to be incorrect at least and a heresy at worst.
Roger Olson is more than qualified to defend Arminianism in this work. Despite the fact that he is prone to bias in defending the theological system he holds, it is proper to observe a defense from one who holds the position. Olson holds a Ph.D. from Rice University and is a professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He has written numerous other theological works, more recently and similar to this work is his work Against Calvinism (Zondervan).
As I briefly mentioned in the above introduction, Olson attempts to defend the theological system of Arminianism in this work. Rather than presenting the tenets of Arminianism in a traditional way, as most systematic theologies do, Olson describes Arminianism by defending it from certain myths. As the title suggests, Olson attempts to separate the myths from the realities of Arminianism in order to shed some truthful light on the theological debate, particularly as it pertains to soteriology. In the preface, Olson gives some personal experiences which have led him to see the need to formally combat these myths. One of these experiences will be worth quoting to demonstrate his motivation in writing this book and will highlight his main thesis and purpose in this work.
Around the time that Olson began to notice more Reformed theologians and authors “attack Arminian theology very caustically, and with misinformation and misrepresentation” (Loc. 48), one of his students made an appointment to talk with him. The student “announced most sincerely, ‘Professor Olson, I’m sorry to say this, but you’re not a Christian.’” After asking the student why he felt that he wasn’t a Christian, the student responded, “’Because my pastor says Arminians aren’t Christians.’” Although the pastor of this student “distanced himself from that statement,” Olson feared that this negative, to say the least, attitude toward Arminianism was growing. Olson’s greatest fear was that Arminianism was being represented and taught by most in the Reformed circle as “at best sub-evangelical and at worst outright heresy” (Loc. 58). His fear that the very theological system by which he holds was being misrepresented to the point that some considered it to be a heresy led him to eliminate the myths that contribute to this misunderstanding.
Olson outlines ten major myths and defends classical Arminianism against these myths. By dispelling the myth, Olson attempts to describe the reality vis-à-vis the myth. To put it simply and in the words of the author, his purpose in writing this book was “to explain classical Arminian theology as it really is” (Loc. 77). There are other systematic theologies and works which explain the tenets of Arminianism, but none of those works defend against myths of Arminianism. In order to accomplish this feat, Olson divides each of the ten myths he wishes to dispel into chapters. These myths include two chapters comparing and contrasting Calvinism and Arminianism (Myths 1 and 2), as well as the defense that Arminianism is an evangelical option (Myth 3). Myths four through ten concern the issues of free will, divine sovereignty, human depravity, grace, predestination, justification, and atonement (Loc. 9-21). Ultimately, the purpose of Olson in this book is to eliminate any conversation or insinuation that Arminianism is “at least sub-evangelical and at worst a heresy.”
The first thing that needs to be said about this work is that the author has supported his arguments and claims substantially with prominent Arminian theologians throughout history. It was refreshing to see quotes from Arminius himself concerning some major issues. Even though I disagree with his conclusions, the presentation by Olson is accurate to what classical Arminiansim teaches. Olson feeds off of Arminius himself as well as John Wesley and others. It would be foolish for any logical thinker to attribute to a system what its founder and early followers did not and do not hold or believe. Therefore, Olson’s use of Arminius and Arminian theologians of the past 400 years to substantiate his claim was wise and well-done.
One example is found in his chapter defending Arminianism against the myth that Arminian theology denies justification by grace alone through faith alone. Obviously this is an important doctrine within soteriology to affirm and Olson presents Arminius as one who in fact held this teaching. In response to an accusation of heresy regarding justification, Arminius said, “’I am not conscious to myself, of having taught or entertained any other sentiments concerning the justification of man before God, than those which are held unanimously by the Reformed and Protestant Churches, and which are in complete agreement with their expressed opinions’” (Loc. 2400).
I do however find a few issues with his argumentation in this work. As in another of Olson’s works which I have read, his tone at times seems to be contentious and overly defensive. At the same time, Olson criticizes Reformed authors, pastors, and theologians of doing this very thing in their criticism of Arminianism. Too often in this book I find Olson trying to have his cake and eat it too. I believe Olson accurately defends Arminianism from false attacks, however, I feel that he does so deceptively and by doing so, he points out many inconsistencies within Arminianism. For example, in an attempt to dispel the myth that Arminian theology denies God’s sovereignty, Olson states that “Arminians are eager to affirm God’s control only if it means that God permits, cooperates with and brings good out of human freedom for his own ultimate plans and purposes” (Loc. 1581-1585).
In attempting to preserve God’s sovereignty, Olson has placed a limit on his sovereignty, namely the divine preservation of human freedom. After giving evidence that Arminius and his early followers affirmed God’s sovereignty, this only shows inconsistencies or misunderstandings of divine sovereignty as it is taught and displayed in Scripture. Olson would need to add a similar condition to God’s sovereignty in Psalm 115:3 which reads, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” So, while he does give an accurate defense of what Arminianism is, he does not accomplish his goal of persuading readers that Arminianism is a viable option due to his revealed inconsistencies.
Another problem I have in his argumentation is his own misrepresentations of Calvinism in defending misrepresentations of Arminianism. His argumentation is unfair at least and hostile at worst. Olson closes his chapter concerning divine sovereignty as follows:
“The inner logic of Calvinism—exhaustive divine determinism—drives toward saying that because nothing happens that God has not foreordained and rendered certain, God is the ultimate cause of every wicked thought and desire because he seeks glory for himself even through damning the wicked. To Arminians this must be the case even though Calvinists do not admit it. This is the main reason Arminians are Arminians rather than Calvinists—to preserve the goodness of God’s character and human sole responsibility for sin and evil” (Loc. 1585).
It is safe to say that most Calvinists would consider this a misrepresentation. And since “Calvinists do not admit [this],” then why does Olson feel the need to state it? I find this type of argumentation to be ineffective. The manner in which Olson dispels “myths” by exposing inconsistencies within Arminianism is a major weakness in his attempt to promote this theological system.
Perspective and Bias
It is also worth noting that the author does bring to this work a heavy bias toward Arminianism. While at times this does lead to misrepresentations of Calvinism, overall it is a benefit to the work as a whole. Since this work was written from an Arminian perspective, readers can be certain that the tenets of Arminianism that are presented are correct. The reliability of this work is not in question as a result of his bias, but rather the work is benefited by his loyalty to this theological system. Olson’s own upbringing in a Pentecostal home, his personal experiences, and theological convictions all attribute to his passion for defending Arminianism (Loc. 30 ff.). All readers from all theological backgrounds can grow from his passionate defense of Arminianism vis-à-vis misrepresentations of it by others.
A Unique Work
Roger Olson has presented a unique work in that it describes the main tenets of Arminianism sufficiently, yet succinctly all the while dispelling common misrepresentations of the Arminian tradition. There are few if any other works like it in this regard. If one was looking for a work that defines Arminian theology, this work does that and goes even further in the discussion and argument against certain myths.
In closing, Roger Olson has presented a work that is sufficient in defining Arminianism and describing its basic tenets while defending it against attacks of misrepresentation and slander. Truly one cannot leave this book thinking that Arminianism is a heresy. Despite the illumination of many inconsistencies within Arminianism, Olson successfully achieves his goal of “explaining Arminianism as it really is.” While the nature of his arguments are ineffective as they misrepresent Calvinism and expose many inconsistencies within classical Arminianism, the book is very beneficial in giving insight into the history and reality of classical Arminianism over and against the ten myths that were challenged.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife Erica and their dog, Simba.