Note: this is the second part of a review of Roger Olson’s – Arminian Theology Myths and Realities in which I am looking into the theological issues that he raises in the ongoing debate between Calvinism and Arminianism.
In chapters 2-3 of Arminian Theology Myths and Realities, Roger Olson looks at whether Calminianism is an option (a synthesis of both Calvinism and Arminianism) and whether Arminianism is even an Orthodox evangelical option. Olson, for reasons that I won’t rehash here, does not see how one could actually believe a hybrid of Calvinism and Arminianism as he makes the case that one will eventually come to places between the two theologies where there is no compatibility whatsoever.
I was actually a little surpsied in chapter 3 to find that Arminianism has been considered to be a heretical teaching by many in the last few hundred years. Perhaps my surprise on this issue is due to my being on the periphery of this debate for most of my Christian experience but I will have to admit that my little understanding of Arminiainism never once made me question if it was on Orthodox Christian theological option. As with chapter 2 I am not so interested in going over his case for Arminianism other than to say he makes a good case for it as a solid Orthodox way to be a Christian. For me the real meat of this book comes in the next chapter when he hits the classical point of disagreement between Calvinism and Arminianism—free will.
In chapter 4 Olson takes on the objections that are raised mainly by Calvinists against Arminianism for its emphasis on free will. Many from the Calvinist tradition see the Arminian emphasis on the free will of man as being both incompatible with God’s sovereignty as well as creating a works based righteousness (which would seem to oppose the absolute need for God’s grace in salvation). This is due in part to the misunderstanding that Arminianism starts in the place of trying to prove the human philosophical concept of free will. For the opponents of Arminianism this smacks of humanism and secular philosophy.
Olson makes a very compelling case that Joseph Arminius wasn’t starting with trying to prove human free will at all but rather with a certain view of God’s nature and character. Because Arminius started with the idea that God is good, loving and just he ended up following the logic (as evidenced thoroughly throughout scripture) that humans in fact have free will by God’s grace to respond to his love and goodness. Arminius could not resolve the deterministic view of God as put forth in Calvinism because it ultimately makes God the author of sin and evil and raises serious issues not only about God’s love and goodness but His justice as well. For God to be loving his creatures must have the choice of responding to that love rather than simply being pawns moved about a cosmic chess board by the arbitrary and capricious whims of their creator. As Olson writes, “Arminianism is all about protecting the reputation of God by protecting his character as revealed in Jesus Christ and scripture. (P.100)”
“Arminius’s most basic guiding principle in these debates is that God is necessarily and by nature good; God’s goodness controls God’s power. And God’s goodness and glory are inseparable; God is glorified precisely in revealing his goodness in creation and redemption. (Roger Olson, P.103)”
As Olson sees it both Calvinism and Arminianism start with a certain fundamental view of God that is at the core of both theologies. For the Calvinist the fundamental view of God that is at the core of its theology is that of God as almighty and holy. For the Calvinist every other attribute of God is secondary to God’s holiness and omnipotence. Because God is all-powerful he must then be in control of everything thus the resulting theology built around this concept of God results in the belief that God creates some to be saved and some to be damned and that God actually controls everything in the created world even evil and sin. For Arminius these ideas of God cut against the picture of God that is revealed is scripture and particularly in the person of Jesus. If Jesus is the ultimate revelation of the father then serious doubts are cast on much of the determinism of Calvinism. For Arminus Jesus shows us the beautiful picture of God’s goodness, love and justice. Arminian theology starts with the belief that God is good and loving and that even his power and might are subject to his character. This runs contrary to the accusations of Calvinists that Arminianism is rooted in humanistic philosophy.
The other aspect of free will that I will look at in the next post is how both Calvinism and Arminianism deal with how humans respond to God. For the Calvinist a human response to God comes from God’s irresistible grace. Arminius sees God’s grace at the core of any human response to God but he does not see that grace as irresistible lest God would be violating the will of the one’s he loves which would malign his own nature and character. I will dig more into this in the next post.