Arminian Theology: Roger E. Olson

The debate between Arminian theology and Calvanism over the doctrine of soteriology has always been heated and filled with tension. Roger E. Olson in Arminian Theology seeks to quiet the flames with toleration and understanding by illustrating the various myths and realities of Arminian theology. The book is not so much an exposition of beliefs and systematic theologies of Arminian theologians but is mainly concerned with curbing the misconceptions that Calvanists trumpet. Olson’s project is thought provoking at times but I believe he fails to follow his own rule of thumb when understanding theologies that are orthodox but still in opposition to their own. The following are areas that I commend Olson on and other instances of criticism.

I believe Olson is correct in that the mischaracterization and demonizing of Arminian theology has no place in the Christian faith. Although the book has failed to convince me of their interpretation of God’s redemptive plan, I would never anathematize or declare heretical their beliefs. Instead, Calvinist should strive to create a friendly dialogue to understand each other and debate with vigor. However, what creates such a heated discussion is the utter importance in the area of the doctrine of salvation or soteriology.

Olson’s work is mainly a constant plea for the ceasing for misconceptions of Arminian theology. The majority of Oslon’s book focuses on this topic. Olson consistently says that Arminian theology adheres to Reformation theology, such as Luther and Calvin. He makes a number of historical connections, from Arminius to modern day theologian Thomas Oden, in order to shows that Arminian theology believes the same in the sovereignty of God, free will, predestination, and justification by grace alone. These are staple doctrine of the Reformation and Olson shows that Arminians certainly continue the same beliefs. Thus, the misconceptions demonstrated by various Calvanist is uncalled for given the high connectedness between Arminians and Reformation doctrine.

However, Olson fails to live up to his own principles because he exemplifies misconceptions of Calvanism without any pause to the obvious misunderstanding. When Olson speaks about Calvanistic notions of single predestination and double predestination, he concludes that a Calvanistic view of God is not one of goodness. Of course for Olson, the heart of Arminian theology is the goodness of God and he even states that this is what prompts the entire theological system, as if such notions are void in Calvanism. It should be obvious to all readers that the view of God from a Calvanist perspective is that of a good God. This is a ridiculous conclusion to Calvanism predestination but Olson presents it in such a way that many readers would choose Arminian theology because all Christians believe that God is good. Olson desires that his opponents in Calvanism perceive his theology correctly and those of a differing tradition would echo his sentiments.[1]

Olson’s work is a good piece to begin a dialogue with Arminian theologians and his highlighting of various theologians throughout the century on each issue is a terrific launching pad. However, I do not believe the Olson’s work is a good explanation of what Arminian’s believe. Olson admits that there are logical inconsistencies and difficulties within the theology but he fails to flesh this out (but this was probably not his intention). My difficulties with the theology that Olson presents is the Arminian understanding of total depravity. Understandably, Arminian theology adheres that mankind is hopeless and helpless apart from the grace of God. Luckily, through prevenient grace, all of humanity now has the ability to resist or not resist God. Therefore, what is there to say about total depravity now with prevenient grace? How can a theology adhere to a doctrine like total depravity but have no present reality of that doctrine? If prevenient grace came through the Christ event, thus how were people saved in their total depravity prior to Christ when there was no grace to help them along in their choosing? It would seem that the Calvinistic soteriology is more cohesive in Gods active saving acts throughout history.

It is questions like these that I found myself constantly colliding with as I read Olson’s book. If Olson’s main objective was to capture a dialogue with Calvanism that did not immediately begin with heresy, mission accomplished. In continuing, I will now seek out a better explanation of what Arminian theology is because Olson did not answer my questions in this regard.

[1] Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006). Olson quotes H. Orton Wiley as saying, “It (predestination) is not an arbitrary, indiscriminate act of God intended to secure the salvation of so many and no more.” Wiley is contrasting this view of predestination with the Arminian view, which is “the gracious purpose of God to save mankind from utter ruin (64).” Olson states that the Calvanist perspective on atonement “cannot avoid limiting the love of God (65).” If God saves one person through the course of history, He is amazingly loving and his love is not limited. Olson does suggest that both systems have difficulties that they should admit too. However, Olson quotes Jerry Walls saying, “The Calvanist cannot tell us why or on what basis God chooses some for salvation and passes others by.” (88) As a student of Theology, I do not consider myself an expert in this area but from a Calvanistic perspective I would say that God’s choosing is based on his love. I think our perspective does have an answer to this.